‘Starling House’ by Alix E. Harrow: A modern gothic fantasy that dares you to dig deeper into a small town’s sinister secrets

If you’re looking for a Starling House book review with all the enthusiasm and none of the spoilers, then rest assured you’re in the right place.

It took one singular book for me to become a huge fan of Alix E. Harrow’s work, and that was A Spindle Splintered, which was essentially the Disney princesses in their very own Spider-Verse. The follow up, A Mirror Mended, was equally fantastic, even if it meant saying goodbye to this incredible world.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long for another book from Alix E. Harrow. As soon as mention of Starling House hit my inbox, I knew I wanted to read it—and that was even before I realized this book was a modern gothic fantasy, which is, like, my aesthetic in a nutshell.

Between The Minuscule Mansion of Myra Malone and She Is a Haunting, among many others, this year seems to be all about creepy houses that are more than they appear at first glance.

Starling House switches between first person, in Opal’s case, and third person, in Arthur’s. I loved this change in perspective because not only did it allow us to get into Arthur’s head, but it still kept him at arm’s length, as though Opal were the one peering through the drapes to observe what he did when she wasn’t at the house.

Opal is in her mid-twenties, working a dead-end job in a town that doesn’t hate her so much as it ignores her very existence. After her mother’s death, Opal took it upon herself to take care of her sixteen-year-old little brother. She’ll lie and cheat and steal to make sure he doesn’t face half the hardship she does in her daily life.

But while her life is mundane during waking hours, Opal continues to dream about Starling House while she’s asleep. There are plenty of rumors about the mansion hidden amongst the trees of her hometown in Eden, Kentucky, and there’s truly no telling which are based in fact.

All Opal knows is that E. Starling, the reclusive nineteenth century author of The Underland, used to live there. Everyone has their own version of who she was and where she came from, as well as the strange stories of the house being built. Did she kill her husband, the elder Gravely brother, and make away with a fortune? Is the house a labyrinth of corridors that lead nowhere but to madness?

And that’s not even to mention the book that E. Starling wrote. The Underland is about a vast world beneath ours, full of monsters and magic, and the little girl, Nora Lee, who ventured down there. Opal has been fascinated with the story ever since she was a child, not knowing that truth is often stranger than fiction.

starling house book review

One day, Opal gives in to whatever power keeps pulling her to the house, and she meets Arthur Starling, its current keeper. When he offers her a job cleaning the mansion, she takes it, in part to help pay for her brother’s college tuition, and in part because she no longer wants to fight her curiosity.

Starling House is more than she ever could’ve imagined. It sighs with the flutter of its drapes, groans with every floorboard, and rearranges itself until it takes you where you didn’t even know you needed to go.

But it also harbors a dark secret, one tied to both the Starlings and the Gravelys.

I read a fair amount of books these days, and I can usually tell within a couple of pages how much I’ll enjoy a book. Starling House by Alix E. Harrow was love at first sight. Just like with the Fractured Fable series, the writing pulled me in within the first page. Harrow’s descriptions had me highlighting passages from every other paragraph. The way she writes is poetic and yet never ostentatious.

Perhaps even more profound is the way you root for Opal, who is, by all rights and self-admission, not a great person. Her one saving grace is her love for her brother, which can be stifling at times. But her heart is in the right place, and I’m glad I got to bear witness to her adding Arthur to the minuscule circle of people she cares about.

On a surface level, Arthur is cold and unforgiving, and yet he’s dedicated his entire life to keeping the mysteries of Starling House at bay, fighting to protect the residents of Eden, even as they continue to ostracize him as they have every other person who has lived in that house over the years.

These two are often at odds, and yet they are pulled together time and time again. While the romantic aspect of the book is not at the forefront of the story, you can find it throughout the pages. As someone who’s been reading a lot of romance lately, this scratched that itch and gave me an incredible world to explore at the same time.

This Starling House book review has been difficult for me to write because this novel is undoubtedly one of my favorites of the year, which means I’m bursting at the seams to talk about it and yet my brain can only scream incoherently in joy as a result.

All that said, Starling House is fantastic, not only because of the resplendent writing and complex characters, but because this book has meaning. It has purpose. It is as much about the mysteries of the house as it is about the history of the town, and the fact that one person’s truth can become someone else’s fiction—just as someone’s fiction becomes the universal truth. Small towns can hold hidden secrets, and while Eden has some monsters that roam the night, it also contains very real people who could give those creatures a run for their money.

I could write about this book for another couple thousand words, but I hope my Starling House book review has at least convinced you to pick it up and give it a try. It’s dark and spooky, yet so full of light and hope. History and mysticism combine to create a magical and yet wholly grounded world. There’s a little something for everyone, and I can’t wait for more people to read this one.

‘Starling House’ published on October 3, 2023

Buy Starling House by Alix E. Harrow from Macmillan, Bookshop.org, or Amazon. You can also add it to your Goodreads list.

Look for more content like this Starling House book review on our books page.