I received an advance digital copy of this novel from the publisher, Tor Books, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
I think I found my favorite book of the year.
Starling House was my most anticipated book of 2023. Which is saying something, as there were so many excellent books published this year. But Harrow’s debut, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, is my favorite standalone novel of all time, so my expectations were sky high. Those expectations could have set me up for failure. They didn’t. While the two novels couldn’t be more different, Starling House is just as powerful and beautiful as The Ten Thousand Doors of January. It just has much sharper teeth.
Opal will do anything to take care of her little brother, Jasper. Since their mom died eleven years ago, it’s been just the two of them against the world. More specifically, it’s been the two of them against their small, backwards hometown of Eden, Kentucky. Opal lied her own childhood away so that she could become Jasper’s legal guardian. The two call a ratty motel room home, and by day Opal is scraping together everything she can from her crappy job at Tractor Supply to buy Jasper a new life at a private boarding school, far from Eden and its judgmentality. By night, she dreams. She dreams of sharp claws and sharper teeth. She dreams of the childhood book that captured her imagination, Underland, and its dark fairytales. But always, she dreams of Starling House. Starling House, the big haunted mansion that rules the nightmares and imaginations of the bigoted, small-minded townspeople. Starling House, the birthplace of monsters and the last bastion of hope against them.
While not dark academia, I would immediately recommend Starling House to anyone who loves Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House and Hell Bent. If you love Alex Stern, you’re going to absolutely adore Opal. Both have bruised hearts that they protect with bleeding knuckles. Both are scrappy, fierce and braver than they believe. Both will lie while staring you right in the eye, a crooked smirk on their lips. Both will fight tooth and nail for what they need and for those they love. But Opal isn’t the only wonderful character in this book. Arthur Sterling grabbed me by the heart and didn’t let me go. His loneliness made me ache. He tried so hard to bury his kindness behind gruffness, but he never quite succeeded. Both Opal and Arthur are broken. Beautifully so. Their brokenness is what makes them so believably multifaceted, so compelling and sympathetic. Both are terrified of wanting, of chasing anything more than their most basic of needs. But oh, how they want.
And then there’s the house! When we first meet Starling House, it is run down and surly, almost like a feral cat. But when it begins to feel loved and treasured for the first time in too long, it slowly begins to shine. I love near-sentient places, and Starling House is one of the best. It has so much personality. And it dreams. I was reminded of Mike Flanagan’s reimagining of The Haunting of Hill House, if Hill House had an artsy, lovechild of a younger sister. The mythos surrounding the house is fascinating, as is that surrounding the Starlings in all their wild variety and stalwart service. If Starling House started sending me dreams, I would be hard pressed not to pick up the sword of the Wardens of Starling House.
This book is kind of difficult to pigeonhole into a genre. It’s Gothic in texture, if not in tone. It’s lightly horror, but the descriptions of even the horrific are so lovely that it pulls the sting from the bite. It’s a mystery, for sure, with a puzzle box of a house and more hiding outside and beneath it. There is a scene that is one of the hottest, most achingly romantic scenes I’ve ever read. It made my breath hitch on multiple levels. And yet, with as romantic as portions of this book are, I wouldn’t quite call it a romance, either. It’s weighty and entrancing and completely its own beast, and I love it for being exactly what it is.
Harrow infused this story with so much depth. It’s about being who you choose to be, no matter who others say you are. It’s about not being defined by a name. It’s about what makes a home, and how four walls can’t contain it. It’s about finding the line between a want and a need, and learning to jump that division with both eyes open. It’s about standing for what you love and what you don’t, even if the world never recognizes your sacrifice. It’s about finding the courage to face your dreams after a lifetime of turning your back on them.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Harrow’s writing. In The Ten Thousand Doors of January, her prose was achingly lovely. I called her a “Wordsmith, a sorceress wielding a pen in place of a wand.” I stand by that description, though it was expressed far differently in Starling House. The prose is still effortlessly literary without an ounce of pretension. However, Harrow’s writing in Starling House has more of an edge to it, a bite that feels more modern and hungry than her debut. In other words, she found a way to retain the magic of her prose while shifting her voice to perfectly suit the story she had to tell. Harrow is a brilliantly gifted weaver of words, and is quite possibly the most talented writer of a generation, in my opinion.
(Side note: I tandem read a digital galley while listening to the audiobook, and I have to say that the audio was stellar. Natalie Naudus did a brilliant job with the narration. She portrayed both Opal and Arthur and even the supporting cast with remarkable aplomb. Listening to this while reading along was a completely immersive experience that I would highly recommend.)
I adored Starling House with every fiber of my being. To me, it’s a perfect book. Full stop. No notes. I fell in love with Opal and Arthur, with the supporting cast and with the House itself. The mythos was just as captivating as the storytelling. I loved every sentence of this, and I’m already looking forward to rereading it. If ever a book deserves a place on my favorites shelf next to The Ten Thousand Doors of January, it’s this one.