In The Unsettled’s short but perfectly paced chapters, Toussaint, Ava and Dutchess tell of not only their disappointment and despair but also their dreams, crafting a heartbreaking tale about Reagan’s America that deftly weaves the past and present into the possibility of a bright, if still-unfolding, future.
The Helena is an apartment complex in South Miami Beach that has stood for over 70 years, bearing witness to changes in landscape, climate and population. On the second floor of the Helena, apartment 2B anchors our story as characters and circumstances flow by like currents.
Ever since I was a kid, I have loved reading books featuring a haunted house with a creepy resident; a feisty, determined heroine; and strange goings-on that gradually turn scary. But rarely, if ever, have I read a haunted house book that features such gorgeous prose as Alix E. Harrow’s latest novel, Starling House. Early on, Harrow describes how 26-year-old narrator Opal McCoy has been dreaming of the titular house since she was a child: “I often wake up with the taste of river water and blood in my mouth, broken glass in my hair, a scream drowning in my chest. But that morning, the first one after I set foot on Starling land, there’s nothing but a deep quiet inside me, like the dead air between radio stations.”
Opal works hard at Tractor Supply Company to try to save enough money to send her younger brother, Jasper, to a fancy boarding school. Their mother died a mysterious death, their father has never been in the picture and they live in a dingy motel room in the dying town of Eden, Kentucky. Opal is desperate to escape Eden, which offers nothing much besides two Dollar Generals and a strip-mined stretch of riverbank, thanks to the operations of nearby Gravely Power.
The big, churning wheels of this lusciously plotted book begin to quickly turn when Opal takes a job cleaning for Starling House’s current owner, a reclusive young man named Arthur Starling. Opal finds herself increasingly intrigued by Arthur despite his odd ways and off-putting looks. But Gravely Power representative Elizabeth Baine, in hopes of obtaining the mineral rights to Arthur’s land, demands that Opal spy on Arthur and his residence, threatening Jasper’s future if she declines.
Harrow invents a rich backstory for Starling House, making clever use of footnotes and even a fake Wikipedia page for 19th-century author Eleanor Starling, who married into the family and wrote and illustrated an unsettling children’s book, which may have been the source of Opal’s Starling House nightmares. Opal uncovers many different versions of the same stories about the house and its inhabitants, past and present, and the truth is hard to sort out. “The Gravelys are either victims or villains; Eleanor Starling is either a wicked woman or a desperate girl. Eden is either cursed, or merely getting its comeuppance,” she concludes.
Excellent social commentary unfolds in the matchup between feisty, sarcastic Opal and the greedy power company. Harrow has tons of fun along the way, noting in Eleanor Starling’s Wikipedia page, for instance, that “director Guillermo del Toro has praised E. Starling’s work, and thanked her for teaching him that ‘the purpose of fantasy is not to make the world prettier, but to lay it bare.’ ” Alix Harrow does just that in Starling House, a riveting fantasy overflowing with ideas and energy that clears away the cobwebs of corporate power and neglect.
Alix E. Harrow’s Starling House is a riveting Southern gothic fantasy with gorgeous prose and excellent social commentary.
Alix E. Harrow and her husband know a thing or two about creepy old houses. Before they were married, they pooled their savings and bought an abandoned house on several acres of land in Madison County, Kentucky, in hopes of bringing it back to life. “It was such a wild choice,” Harrow recalls. “When we closed on the house and walked in, rain was coming into the second floor. We looked at each other and asked, ‘What are we doing?’ ” Nonetheless, over the next seven years or so, the couple forged ahead, completing almost all of the renovations themselves.
It’s not surprising, then, that a mysterious, dilapidated house is the subject of Harrow’s third novel, Starling House. The book features a down-on-her-luck young woman named Opal McCoy who takes a housekeeping job at the titular home, which has haunted her dreams since she was a girl. It’s an eagerly awaited, exceptional follow-up to the bestselling author’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January, a portal fantasy set in the early 1900s, and The Once and Future Witches, about suffragettes in the late 1800s who happen to be witches.
“What’s funny,” Harrow says, speaking from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia, “is that all my other books have historical settings, so with this one, I wanted to do contemporary. But then, of course, when I actually started to write it, I realized, oh, it’s all about the past, actually.”
The author is a pro at genre mashups, having also written two “fractured fables”—A Spindle Splintered and A Mirror Mended—that romp through classic fairy tales. “One of the fun things about writing a house book is that you get to play with all the literary tropes and traditions of haunted houses,” Harrow says. “But then I also know the very literal experience of dealing with an old, rotten house. There’s stuff about patching drywall and glazing old windows that are jokes just for me and my husband.”
Harrow describes her new novel as a Southern gothic Beauty and the Beast, with Opal as the beauty and her employer, Arthur Gravely, the beast—described in the book as a “Boo Radley-ish creature” whose face “is all hard angles and sullen bones split by a beak of a nose, and his hair is a tattered wing an inch shy of becoming a mullet.” Opal is desperate to get her younger brother, Jasper, out of their dingy hotel room and the dying town of Eden, Kentucky, so she takes the generous-salaried job Arthur offers. It’s a big step up from her shifts at Tractor Supply Company, and Opal is beyond curious to venture inside Starling House, despite the fact that inexplicable and terrifying things seem to happen there. For instance, both of Arthur’s parents mysteriously died within the house and Opal gets a strange, bloody cut on her hand the moment she touches Starling House’s gate—a cut that won’t seem to heal.
Harrow was initially inspired by a well-known John Prine song, “Paradise,” about how strip mining destroyed the town of Paradise in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. “It’s like a tiny little Kentucky Chernobyl,” Harrow says of what’s left of that town. “Now it’s dead financially and ecologically. So, I was like, ‘What if it had survived? And what if it was haunted more literally? And what about the people who would still kind of cling on and love it despite everything?’ ” Like Prine, whose parents came from Paradise, Harrow has deep Kentucky roots. Part of her childhood was spent two counties away from Paradise. Prine describes how the coal company used “the world’s largest shovel” to dig coal, and Harrow’s father actually rode that same power shovel to the top of a mountain. (The shovel is called “Big Jack” in Starling House.) “Mountain coal is my family,” she says. “I never met my maternal grandfather because he was killed by a coal train.”
Her father, in fact, jokingly accused her of plagiarism because “I’ve just taken all of these pieces of my life and put them into a different collage.” She acknowledges that she incorporated many bits from her past into her book, but is quick to clarify, “It is mostly details, not the overall shape of my childhood. I don’t want to give people the impression that I was seriously impoverished or living on the edge of society, in a motel. I had a stable, loving household and all of that stuff. But the details—like my first job, I graduated from college in the middle of the recession and I worked as a cashier at Tractor Supply in Allen County, Kentucky. So, there are a lot of things that were just familiar to me. But, of course, there is a lot of air between me and the actual characters.”
Interestingly, there’s no trace whatsoever of a Kentucky drawl in Harrow’s voice. She attributes this to her mom’s influence as an English teacher as well as her family’s move to Boulder, Colorado, for three years when she was 10. “You can lose an accent fast when someone makes fun of you for it,” she says.
Harrow began writing this book as she and her husband and two children moved from Kentucky to Virginia, and a sense of yearning informed the process—a feeling that’s hardly new. “I moved around quite a bit as a kid,” she explains, “even within Kentucky. And then when we left for Colorado, it was huge. I remember my dad literally saying to me, ‘Aren’t you a little young for nostalgia?’ I’m just a naturally wistful and nostalgic person. So I had in my head this idea of Kentucky and the idea of home.”
As she began writing Starling House, she realized that she hadn’t set any previous fiction primarily in her home state. “All my short stories were kind of about escape and going on adventures and going through magic doors,” she adds. “Like, finding a way out, which I now see pretty obviously was a fantasy of mine. I think it’s very funny that it was only once my husband and I decided to leave that I wrote a book about staying.” She says she had always wanted to make a home in Kentucky, “but then I had children and the political climate darkened. I just could not find a way to stay, given the means and resources and ability to find somewhere safer and kinder and with more possibilities for my children. So, this book is sort of like the dream of what if somehow, you could find a way to stay?”
Before turning to fiction, Harrow earned a master’s degree in history at the University of Vermont, then taught history at Eastern Kentucky University. She first tried her hand at writing a fantasy novel in middle school, but then didn’t write fiction again until she was in her 20s, working as an adjunct. She started writing short stories “as an experiment” and “I loved it,” she says, laughing.
A sense of history permeates Starling House: Harrow adds intriguing footnotes, as well as a bibliography containing both real and imagined sources. She also created a very convincing fake Wikipedia page within the novel for Eleanor Starling, one of Arthur’s ancestors, a 19th-century children’s writer who wrote a book called The Underland that Opal read as a child. That book plays a huge part in the novel, and harkens back to Harrow’s master’s thesis on British children’s literature in the late 1800s and early 1900s and its ties to imperialism.
“I never had a creative writing class or tried to pursue creative writing since middle school,” she says. “But the skills that you learn in academic historical writing are basically the same. You’re trying to build an argument about the world, you’re trying to make a narrative that makes sense based on little bits and pieces in support of your cause. All the research skills and all the organizational skills and the belief that if you just keep writing, eventually you’ll come to your point—all those things are not as far away from fiction as you would think. The same interests led me to history, which are basically just wanting to know why the world is the way it is and how power works.”
The novel’s corporate villain is Gravely Power, started by Arthur’s ancestors, which is lobbying to obtain the mineral rights of Arthur’s property. A relentless, devious company representative named Elizabeth Baine tries to bribe and blackmail Opal into spying on Arthur and photographing Starling House as she works. Harrow was inspired to create Elizabeth after writing The Once and Future Witches and encountering some reader reactions that were “very like, women are good and men are bad and having very little sort of critical engagement with the history of white feminism in ways that I found sort of teeth grating.” Harrow concluded she was ready for a change of pace, deciding her next villain would be a white woman as “certain forms of ambition are not specifically gendered.”
The Southern gothic, Harrow says, proved to be the perfect vehicle for this corporate showdown because one of its central conflicts can be “a huge nostalgia for a time that was just ontologically evil.” Harrow mentions the diverging viewpoints of white Southern gothic writers and Black Southern gothic writers, noting, “That’s why there’s so many different versions of the story of Starling House in the book—often it’s the same story told from a different perspective with wildly different ethics and takeaways.” As Opal hears these conflicting tales, she keeps digging to get closer to the truth, despite mounting danger.
Starling House incorporates other influences beyond Southern gothic, pulling from fairy tales and supernatural thrillers, with a touch of horror. Harrow admits, “I’ve never been particularly faithful to one single genre. I’ve always been kind of a messy reader. And when you come up with a book idea that dabbles in multiple genres, it’s almost like at the beginning of a history paper, when you want to have your historiography. I always want to be doing tropes on purpose. If it’s cliche, it’s a cliche on purpose.”
As Harrow describes her writing process, she sounds more like a historian than a fiction writer. Did she always know, for instance, how Opal would get along with Arthur? “Oh, I know everything from the start,” she replies, laughing. “I am not a casual drafter.” She begins with a general synopsis and a chapter-by-chapter outline before beginning to write. “And then I draft the book and realize that the whole thing is wrong,” she explains, “and go back and change it with a new outline. But very rarely—not never—but rarely, am I drafting a scene and like, ‘Oh my God, it just came out completely differently than I planned it.’ ”
She also notes that she is not “a haunted house person.” “When I wrote the witch book,” she recalls, “I got a number of very sweet and generous messages from people who were practitioners of witchcraft. I was very much like, ‘Oh man, I’m so sorry. Wrong audience.’” She anticipates that readers of Starling House may reach out with similar messages about ghosts and hauntings.
“I’m a huge chicken,” Harrow confesses.
What she is, it turns out, is a comedian—and one of Opal’s many endearing qualities is her often-snarky, sarcastic wit, as shown in both her narration and dialogue. Was her humor hard to write?
“No,” Harrow says with a laugh. “I find my main problem is to stop making jokes and try to rein it in a little bit.”
Photo of Alix E. Harrow by Elora Overbey.
The author poured her yearning for the past into Starling House, a fantasy that’s best described as a Southern gothic Beauty and the Beast.
Fantasy has always been a playground for social commentary. From Tolkien’s anti-industrial allegories in Lord of the Rings to Samantha Shannon’s deconstruction of the archetypal damsel in The Priory of the Orange Tree, magical worlds with dragons and wizards are almost never as escapist as they seem. Urban fantasy is no exception, being as defined by its penchant for cultural critique as by its city settings. More than any other subgenre, urban fantasy is often unambiguously about real life.
Take The Hexologists by Josiah Bancroft. It’s essentially a fantasy mystery novel, following magically talented detective Iz Wilby and her imposing yet soft-hearted husband (and de facto chef), Warren, as they try to identify who has hexed the king of Bancroft’s barely fictionalized analogue of early 20th-century London. Bancroft’s leads are staunchly anti-royalist and anti-capitalist, positions which are proven to be entirely justified over and over throughout the book. Bancroft’s point could have been made more subtly, although, to be fair, subtlety does not seem to have been his intent: He opens the book with an overgrown tree golem attacking Iz and Warren’s house and spends a surprising amount of time justifying the couple’s high libido by asserting that sex helps Iz think. But The Hexologists is effective and entertaining regardless, not least because it also includes Felivox, a gourmand dragon who lives in a handbag. He is utterly delightful, and debilitatingly British dragons with discerning palates should be in more books.
Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey’s The Dead Take the A Train, on the other hand, offsets its recognizable New York City setting with a relentless barrage of visceral body horror and deliriously twisted humor. So while their commentary—in their telling, Wall Street’s pursuit of money and power is literally devouring the world—is equally blatant, it feels more in line with the nature of the book. After all, we are introduced to the main protagonist, Julie, while she is amputating a bride-to-be’s arm in a nightclub with a penknife to extract a demon. After her plan to summon an angel to help a friend goes horribly awry, Julie tries to clean up her city-jeopardizing mess while also playing video games while high on possibly magical designer drugs, falling behind on rent and facing some creatively terrifying bogeymen. One antagonist is a seething mass of carnivorous worms, two others are twins who like to eat their sentient prey slowly, keeping it alive the whole time, and none of these is the one called The Mother Who Eats. This is most certainly not a book for the squeamish, the meek or the banker. (Remember: Wall Street is going to devour the world.)
Although The Hexologists is a mostly well-mannered British murder mystery and The Dead Take the A Train is a depraved carnival of nightmares and eldritch narcotics, they are both solid representatives of contemporary urban fantasy, addressing real-world injustices while also being very, very funny.
The Hexologists and The Dead Take the A Train blend social commentary with sensational genre thrills.
Kissen is a veiga, or godkiller, sanctioned by the Middren government to kill nascent minor deities when they become troublesome. She holds a deep hatred of gods, given that her family, who was favored by the sea god Osidisen, was sacrificed to the rising fire god Hseth. So she’s deeply uneasy when she encounters Inara Craier, a recently orphaned noble girl who is somehow bonded to Skediceth, a minor god of white lies. Inara and Skediceth’s connection is an abomination in a land like Middren, which recently fought a war against and killed most of the gods. Soon, the three are traveling to the city of Blenraden, the only place with shrines powerful enough to potentially break the bond between Inara and Skediceth. Joining them on their quest is Elogast, a baker on a secret mission for the king himself.
In Hannah Kaner’s Godkiller, gods are creatures who feed on human devotion, much like Stephen Eriksen’s fading deities or C.S. Friedman’s symbiotic, emotion-eating Iezu. This symbiosis turns, all too easily, to predation and, eventually, bitter generational enmities between gods and their subjects. Unlike the dizzying political intrigue of Eriksen’s Malazan Book of the Fallen or Friedman’s character-driven Coldfire trilogy, Kaner’s work centers on her divine magic system. Godkiller is not a commentary on religion or free will; rather, it is about what happens when power lies in the hands of entities who simply do not care about the consequences of its use.
By far, the best characters are the gods themselves. Humans in Godkiller tend to be defined by single traits, whether Elogast’s honor, Kissen’s anger or Inara’s resilience. The gods are similarly one-note, but because they are all so deeply focused on their own self-preservation, they possess an amoral selfishness that is consistently interesting. Osidisen’s fury at Hseth seems largely motivated by how she stole his worshippers; Hseth herself simply requires an ever-growing coterie of human thralls to survive, like a fire needs a constant supply of fuel. Even Skediceth, despite his friendship and bond with Inara, views acting in his own best interest as the ultimate moral good.
But archetypes are common in fantasy for a reason: They’re compelling and fun. And there are few things more enjoyable than watching a bruised yet honorable man and a vengeance-seeking assassin escort a young girl and her manipulative, telepathic divinity of a familiar to the forbidden city of the gods. Especially when the world they’re traipsing through is so rich and laden with narrative potential.
In Hannah Kaner’s Godkiller, the world is filled with gods both major and minor, all of whom are as powerful as they are monstrously selfish.
Cousins Mariko and Jillian Tamaki have created a slice-of-life story about growing up and growing apart that will speak to the 18-year-old in every reader—whether they’re just out of college or at retirement age.
Empty nester Margaret Hartman is thrilled when she and her husband, Hal, buy a gorgeous old Victorian home. But the house soon begins testing them with annual September “shenanigans”: blood oozing down the walls, creepy spirits of 19th-century children and a demonic boogeyman that even an experienced priest can’t exorcize. Margaret and Hal weather three cursed Septembers, but Margaret in particular is in it for the long haul. When Hal disappears on the eve of the fourth September and his and Margaret’s daughter, Katherine, arrives to search for him, family secrets are brought to light.
From the ghost of a murdered maid to swarms of giant flies, the house’s antics become routine for Margaret, and her wry, witty narration will also accustom readers to these supernatural events. Despite the house’s horrors, it still provides Margaret with a haven, a purpose and an emotional connection to an eerie spirit community. But when author Carissa Orlando reveals why Margaret is so good at putting out proverbial fires and quelling very real ghosts, The September House takes an unexpected emotional turn. Margaret knows that ugly secrets can be carried well beyond the grave, and it’s better to heal, forgive and protect when you can. Her interactions with Katherine are particularly tense and anxiety-inducing as Orlando explores an estranged parent-child relationship impacted by intergenerational trauma.
The September House pulls inspiration from classic settings such as the Bates Motel, Rose Red, the Overlook Hotel and Hill House, but Orlando’s characterization of the old Victorian is fresh and fascinating. The house serves as an analogy for the deterioration of family and mental health, with the collapse of a person’s mind being more terrifying than any specter lurking in the shadows. Some of the body horror moments may feel familiar, but Margaret’s delightfully matter-of-fact voice puts a new spin on even the oldest of tropes, and the novel’s horrifying events unfold at a furious pace. The September House is a riveting adventure that will grab you by the ankles and drag you down into the pitch-black basement you’ve been warned to avoid.
Carissa Orlando’s darkly funny and unexpectedly emotional The September House follows an empty nester who refuses to leave her extremely haunted Victorian home.
Set in the 1800s, R.F. Kuang’s historical fantasy novel Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution follows the adventures of Robin Swift, a Chinese student at the Royal Institute of Translation at Oxford University, where the act of translation is used to derive magical power. Though languages like Bengali, Haitian creole and Robin’s native Cantonese are the source of much of this power, Britain and its ruling class reaps almost all of the benefits. As Robin progresses at the institute, his loyalties are tested when Britain threatens war with China. The politicization of language and the allure of institutional power are among the book’s rich discussion topics.
Jason Fitger, the protagonist of Julie Schumacher’s witty campus novel Dear Committee Members, teaches creative writing and literature at Payne University, where he contends with funding cuts and diminishing department resources. He also frequently writes letters of recommendation for students and colleagues, and it’s through these letters that the novel unfolds. Schumacher uses this unique spin on the epistolary novel to create a revealing portrait of a curmudgeonly academic struggling to navigate the complexities of campus life. Reading groups will savor this shrewdly trenchant take on the higher-ed experience, and if you find yourself wanting to sign up for another course with Professor Fitger, Schumacher’s two sequels (The Shakespeare Requirement and The English Experience) are also on the syllabus.
For a surrealist send-up of the liberal arts world, turn to Mona Awad’s clever, disturbing Bunny. Samantha Mackey made it into the MFA creative writing program of Warren University thanks to a scholarship. The other writers—a tightknit circle of wealthy young women known as the Bunnies—convene regularly for a horrifying ritual. When Samantha is invited to take part, she learns difficult lessons about female friendship and her own identity. This haunting, often funny novel probes the dark side of academia and the challenges of the artistic process.
In her uncompromising, upfront memoir, They Said This Would Be Fun: Race, Campus Life, and Growing Up, Eternity Martis writes about being a Black student at Western University, a mostly white college in Ontario. Martis was initially thrilled to attend the university, but the racism she experienced in the classroom and in social settings made her question her life choices. Her smart observations, unfailing sense of humor and invaluable reporting on contemporary education make this a must-read campus memoir.
Go back to school with tomes that spotlight the scandals and drama of life on campus.
Kel has worked carefully to assimilate into the culture of her adopted homeworld of Loth. She’s a daredevil climber of xoffedil, the local megafauna, and is a somewhat dour friend to Lunna, a cheerful youth from the nearby village. But Kel has a secret buried under the floorboards of her house—the kind of secret best left right where it is, for everyone’s safety. However, when a derelict war machine left behind by an expansionist interstellar empire mysteriously reactivates, Kel’s best option is to dig out her old weapons and hope she doesn’t have to make use of them.
Valerie Valdes’ Where Peace Is Lost reads like Star Wars co-written by Scott Lynch and Tamsyn Muir. Kel and Lunna are soon joined by Savvy, an appropriately named space captain, and Dare, Savvy’s strong and silent companion. The four mismatched leads try to solve a problem that’s locally a very big deal, but beneath the notice of galactic politicians and imperial commandants. Along the way, there are hijinks at varying levels of violence, some involving the loquacious Lunna charming their way out of (or into) trouble, others involving Dare hitting things with a high-tech claymore. And then there’s Kel, whose secret could solve all their problems, but also create newer, much bigger ones.
Where Peace Is Lost could easily be the first book in a series revolving around this volatile quartet as they traipse around the galaxy, solving problems with implausibly big swords and amusing chatter. Valdes ties up the main plot without answering several significant questions about her core characters and their respective histories, perhaps leaving room to flesh things out in sequels. Or perhaps she’ll just . . . leave it at that. When the characters and their relationships are as well-drawn as they are in Where Peace Is Lost, a reader’s imagination can easily fill in the gaps.
Where Peace Is Lost, with its ambitious, imaginative brand of escapist social commentary, is part of the current resurgence in optimistic speculative fiction, where the good guys are actually good and some of the bad guys might be decent deep inside. Readers will forgive a few just-so plot twists and predictable romances in order to spend time in this gift of a story where nobody locks their doors, the greedy get what’s coming to them and and the artifacts beneath your quiet, secretive neighbor’s floorboards can save the world.
Where Peace Is Lost is an ambitious, imaginative space adventure with an escapist, soothing brand of social commentary.
After spending the last five years at the prestigious Medio School for Girls, 17-year-old Daniela Vargas is ready to graduate at the top of her class. But instead of heading to college, Dani’s next step is becoming the Primera, or first wife, of the capital’s most promising young politico.
Sword of Fire is centered around a socio-political struggle against the unjust courts of the Kingdom of Deverry. While that certainly could be a backdrop for a bleak, dark struggle, Kerr’s novel is instead a lovely quest with an ever-optimistic, wholeheartedly enthusiastic crew of brilliant women and chivalrous men.
Ayana Mathis’ The Unsettled is a gripping novel about mothers and children, past and present, and the private hells in which we often find ourselves while searching for utopia. With its chorus of intergenerational voices and its themes of love, loss and legacy, it contains many of the things her loyal readers most enjoy, along with a story that is heartbreaking yet hopeful.