The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student in Vermont when he discovers a mysterious book hidden in the stacks. As he turns the pages, entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, key collectors, and nameless acolytes, he reads something strange: a story from his own childhood. Bewildered by this inexplicable book and desperate to make sense of how his own life came to be recorded, Zachary uncovers a series of clues—a bee, a key, and a sword—that lead him to a masquerade party in New York, to a secret club, and through a doorway to an ancient library hidden far below the surface of the earth. What Zachary finds in this curious place is more than just a buried home for books and their guardians—it is a place of lost cities and seas, lovers who pass notes under doors and across time, and of stories whispered by the dead. Zachary learns of those who have sacrificed much to protect this realm, relinquishing their sight and their tongues to preserve this archive, and also of those who are intent on its destruction. Together with Mirabel, a fierce, pink-haired protector of the place, and Dorian, a handsome, barefoot man with shifting alliances, Zachary travels the twisting tunnels, darkened stairwells, crowded ballrooms, and sweetly soaked shores of this magical world, discovering his purpose—in both the mysterious book and in his own life.
There is a boy and there is a story, and there are bees and keys and swords.
This particular story focuses on Zachary Ezra Rawlins, who finds an unusual book, then a secret party, then an entire hidden world. If he was once a regular graduate student, now he’s something more. What he might be, though, remains uncertain. The story is not done. His alliances are not yet certain.
But with a book of odd fairy tales in one hand, and a sprawling library of stories to explore at the other, he might just see this through to the end. There may be many stories at work, twining through one another and racing towards some uncertain end, but they all are starting to have one thing in common: him.
“A boy at the beginning of a story has no way of knowing that the story has begun.”
Possibly the most fascinating feature of The Starless Sea is the structure. Ripe with prose that evokes the feeling of fairy tales, and sprinkled with scenes of great impossibility, it is every inch a fantasy novel. The interludes in particular sparkle with the whimsy of a fairy tale or bedtime story, even when they grow grim, but the entire novel still gleams with that otherworldly spark. And more than that, it manages to blur the edges between Zachary’s modern, mundane world, and the magical world so far below the surface.
Of course, if you don’t care for prose that could be called purple, maybe you won’t like the writing style. If metaphor and a dash of elusive enchantment are your cup of tea, though, this will definitely do it for you. Personally, I love that sort of thing. It makes it so much more possible to get lost in an unfamiliar world, to let the pages well and truly take you somewhere else. And in The Starless Sea, there are so very many places to go, so many times to visit, so many fragile hearts to hold in your hands and wonder how their stories end.
Plus, it leaves room for a little bit of silliness approached with total serious, which never fails to delight me. Not only did I love the many, many cats present, but I am entirely enamored with the regularly featured bunny pirates, a phrase that is entirely my brand and yet had not occurred to me until reading this book.
You’re all lucky I don’t have an eyepatch handy, or this review would have a picture of one of my rabbits wearing it.
But The Starless Sea doesn’t have everything.
Fascinating as this book is, it didn’t completely enthrall me. Sure, I love a great deal of it, I do! There’s plenty to enjoy! But there are also facets lacking in substances, facets I wish we’d explored deeper.
For one, it seems like Zachary Ezra Rawlins is the only character to really show any development. He grows in subtle ways, but keeps moving in some sort of forward direction. His friends, though, and even his enemies, seem to occupy some predetermined space where they cannot be anything other than what they’ve always been. Dorian, admittedly, has a foot in this space and the other foot starting toward change, I’ll give him that. But Mirabel and the other supporting characters are just that: supports. They exist largely as predetermined pillars, holding up the edges of the story so Zachary can pass through it.
Like a very large, very stiff tent, if you will. And nobody moves unless they’re moving part of that tent out of his way.
(Bear with me. It may be the month for Camp NaNoWriMo, but all my metaphors are very rusty. Not to mention I’m writing this review after a day at work. Spare brain cells, who?)
Anyhow, the static nature of most of the cast bothered me. Equally troubling was the conclusion, which felt like something of a reversal. The Starless Sea goes to great lengths to set up a lesson about stories and resolutions, only to teeter on the edge of an ambiguous ending. Sure, it suits the open-ended nature of the fairy tales this book evokes so well, but it also seems to rest firmly at odds with the point of Zachary’s entire journey. I can’t help but dwell on this, second guess my interpretations only to trust them once more. Something, ultimately, just doesn’t add up.
I feel like The Starless Sea is going to be a beloved book.
After all, The Night Circus was a smash hit, and Erin Morgenstern’s only other work. The following is tremendous, and this book only invites more readers to experience the author’s skill in whimsical prose. Plus, it has an incredibly imaginative world to offer, and an intriguing premise. On the whole, I recommend it for anyone willing to dedicate some time to such a large, somewhat convoluted book.
I also think, though, that it’s a bit niche. Not every fantasy reader is going to love this book. Anyone looking for high fantasy is likely to be disappointed, and anyone looking for a deep, captivating romance will probably find only the hints of it until it flares to life near the book’s end, too late to properly be a slow-burn. And that’s not to mention the prose, which I pointed out earlier.
If you’re in it for mystery and questions you may not be able to answer, though, you very well may love The Starless Sea. Same goes for anyone who stays up at night, wondering about the nature of stories, about their transmission, about their destinations.
Which sort of reader are you?
CW: violence (including gun violence), gore, animal death, implied suicide, implied self-harm, child death mention, loss of a loved one