Alix E Harrow burst onto the fantasy scene with her alternate reality fantasy novel The Ten Thousand Doors of January. She upped the ante with her witches meet the suffrage movement novel The Once and Future Witches and has also delivered a couple of reimagined fairy tales. In her latest novel Starling House, she returns to her native Kentucky with a dark, traditional but modern fairy tale.
Twenty three year old Opal is just scraping by in the town of Eden, Kentucky. She lives in a hotel room and looks after her high-schooler brother Justin who she has been caring for since their mother’s death when she was still a teenager herself. Opal dreams of the strange house on the outskirts of town and finds herself passing through the formerly locked gates after cutting herself on them and meeting its single resident Arthur. Arthur hires Opal as a cleaner and she starts to come to terms with the house’s strangeness but not before outside forces blackmail her into betraying Arthur. Those forces represent the rapacious Graveley family who run the coal mine outside of town and have their eyes on Starling House.
There is a lot going on in Starling House but it is built on the elements of classic fairytales. An orphan, weird locations, plenty of secrets, good guys and bad guys, monsters, destiny and a dash of romance. But it also plays on some of the more modern aspects of this part of the world – the legacy of slavery, the impact of mining, the haves and have nots, the power of big business. Harrow manages to wrap all of this up and deliver it engagingly through a sassy, unapologetic heroine and a lugubrious, tortured hero.
Starling House is top shelf modern classical fantasy. Readers will probably not be surprised by some of the twists and turns but given its classic underpinnings, will enjoy going with them nonetheless.