We love a good-looking love interest in a book, right?
I've made it no secret that my go-tos in the movies that play in my head as I read about the hot male lead are Tom Hiddleston, Adam Driver, Ben Barnes, and, recently, lots of Michael B. Jordan.
Imagine my surprise, and even delight, to have the male lead in a book described as looking like a sick crow and a human gargoyle. This was a total 180 from what we're all used to; by now we expect tall and broad, strong and steady, Matthew Macfayden walking across that field with the chest hair and the coat billowing in the breeze and if you try to tell me that Colin Firth could ever top that I'll insist that you need to see a doctor about your head.
Starling House by Alix E. Harrow is my third Alix E. Harrow book and I am firmly an Alix E. Harrow fangirl at this point. (The other two I've read were The Ten Thousand Doors of January which was absolutely perfect in every way and The Once and Future Witches which was also absolutely lovely and wonderful). So when I found out that she'd written a gothic fairytale, nothing could have kept me from this book. Nothing.
Opal has lived a life of deceit, lying as easily as she breathes. Her mother raised her to be wild and carefree, down to choosing whatever last name may suit you at the time. But after her mother's death in a car accident, Opal is forced to grow up fast; she has her decade-younger brother, Jasper, to raise. They scrape by on Opal's job at Tractor Supply in their free Room 12 at the Garden of Eden motel--something that her mother "worked out" with the owner, Bev. Opal does what she can to survive while being haunted by dreams of the notorious Starling House, Eden, Kentucky's most gossiped about haunt.
Starling House is the former home of the now-beloved author, Eleanor Starling, who wrote the macabre Neo-Gothic and modernist children's book The Underland. The Underland is a tale about a young girl who discovers another world full of beasts beneath the ground. E. Starling, as she was professionally known, mysteriously disappeared one day, before being declared dead in 1886. Throughout the years since her disappearance, there have been a hodge podge of "Wardens" of Starling House; as soon as one dies or disappears, there is someone else there to take up the mantle and care for the house.
One day, Opal, having had enough of the dreams of Starling House that call to her so often, stomps up to the gates of the house, where she's told to run by the awkward and hunched resident, Arthur. She does, but she's not so easily turned off, quickly returning, where she is eventually offered a job as a housekeeper at Starling House--the only other person Arthur will let inside its doors. No sooner does Opal begin her employment than she is approached by a corporate looking woman asking questions and demanding secrets about Starling House, and threatens Jasper to force Opal to comply. Since Opal is a natural born liar, though, she does what she can to play everyone in order to keep the hefty income Arthur pays her (which she needs to try and fund a better future for Jasper).
Opal is brash and untrustworthy and absolutely wonderful. She's so different from main characters you're used to in all the best ways, and I freaking loved her. The devotion she had for her brother was so heart warming, and the lengths she'd go for her people, and for her notion of home, were so inspiring. I also loved Arthur, in his non-traditional-male-lead way. Even if he didn't exactly look the part of the romantic love interest we have come to expect, Arthur still has the heart of the brave and noble man we all know and love.
I love Alix E. Harrow's writing style, but I think that this may be my favorite of her books so far. It was dark and depressing while also ending on an inspiring, hopeful note. It felt like both a love letter and a middle finger to Kentucky, at the same time, which seems on brand since Alix is from Kentucky and probably shares many of the same feelings that Opal has about her hometown. I also really enjoyed the real-life problems that we see, making the book that much more relatable. A corporate, money-hungry mega plant poisoning the locals? That same company being able to pay a fine and continue doing what they were doing without making changes? Pollution in the air, making everyone sick? Cancer, asthma, and water that "just isn't quite bad enough for it to kill most folks"? We've seen and heard that all so often in real life. Teflon? Flint? This book will renew your rage.
I honestly can't say enough good things, this book was perfect.
Love and the last picante chicken hidden in the tampon box under the sink,
Disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of this book, and audiobook, from the publisher via NetGalley and have voluntarily written this review with my honest feedback. If you purchase a copy using my Bookshop.org affiliate link above, I will receive a small commission and you'll support local indies! If you purchase a copy using my Amazon affiliate link above, I will receive a small commission which I will use to justify my literary addictions and to spoil my dogs (probably).