Goodreads: The Starless Sea
Published: November 2019
Far beneath the surface of the earth, upon the shores of the Starless Sea, there is a labyrinthine collection of tunnels and rooms filled with stories. The entryways that lead to this sanctuary are often hidden, sometimes on forest floors, sometimes in private homes, sometimes in plain sight. But those who seek will find. Their doors have been waiting for them.
Zachary Ezra Rawlins is searching for his door, though he does not know it. He follows a silent siren song, an inexplicable knowledge that he is meant for another place. When he discovers a mysterious book in the stacks of his campus library he begins to read, entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, lost cities, and nameless acolytes. Suddenly a turn of the page brings Zachary to a story from his own childhood impossibly written in this book that is older than he is.
A bee, a key, and a sword emblazoned on the book lead Zachary to two people who will change the course of his life: Mirabel, a fierce, pink-haired painter, and Dorian, a handsome, barefoot man with shifting alliances. These strangers guide Zachary through masquerade party dances and whispered back room stories to the headquarters of a secret society where doorknobs hang from ribbons, and finally through a door conjured from paint to the place he has always yearned for. Amid twisting tunnels filled with books, gilded ballrooms, and wine-dark shores Zachary falls into an intoxicating world soaked in romance and mystery. But a battle is raging over the fate of this place and though there are those who would willingly sacrifice everything to protect it, there are just as many intent on its destruction. As Zachary, Mirabel, and Dorian venture deeper into the space and its histories and myths, searching for answers and each other, a timeless love story unspools, casting a spell of pirates, painters, lovers, liars, and ships that sail upon a Starless Sea.
I’ve been waiting ever since I read The Night Circus for Erin Morgenstern to publish a second book, to give readers something equally beautiful and magical and unique. And though Morgenstern took years to delivers(years in which I began to despair I would ever see another book from her), The Starless Sea was worth the wait. It’s breathtakingly different, weaving together mystery and mythology and narratives that at first seem unconnected to create a story that comments on the nature of story itself and brings readers to a magical world where anything seems possible.
The Starless Sea takes a while to “get going,” if you’re the type of reader who likes to know what’s going on in a book right away and to have a sense of where the book will be going in the future. Morgenstern alternates chapters with the “main” story about Zachary Ezra Rawlins with excerpts from books–and the excerpts don’t even seem to be related to each other or even from the same book. Readers just have to accept this initially, to go with the flow and read each excerpt as it comes, waiting for all the pieces to fit together. Personally, I found this an enjoyable experience; I can imagine others might not. I saw on Twitter that Morgenstern said she wrote the book to be unfilmable–and this is certainly one of the reasons why. There’s no clear linear narrative, no clear way everything makes sense until nearly the end.
But I loved it all. The excerpts from the books are provocative and imaginative, while Zachary’s story is a bit more grounded. (If you can accept he ends up in a magical world where art and story come to life, but there are no clearly understandable rules.) Sometimes I read novels and wonder how the authors can have such imagination and despair that I would ever be able to write anything so vivid and unique; The Starless Sea is one of those cases, and Morgenstern somehow manages to write parts that seem like traditional fantasy and parts that read like fair tales and myths and do it all extremely well.
I do think there are parts of the novel that seem a bit pretentious, but it’s possibly intentional considering the protagonist is a graduate student and the people he interacts with tend to be artists and storytellers. There are a lot of conversations about the nature of story and narrative and how it all works and why it all has meaning and…I guess it reminded me too much of graduate school in places, so clearly Morgenstern got that part right. I don’t know if it was all meant to be sincere reflections on story or whether I was supposed to find it a bit irritating in places, but characters definitely have a lot of conversations over drinks about their “profound” reflections on art.
Some of the reflections actually did make me think, however, and I do think they were in character for the type of people who would be hanging out on college campuses and in the Starless Sea, so I can accept them.
And while “the nature of story” is a major theme, the book also addresses loss and duty and love and a multitude of other things I found very interesting.
This is a book unlike any other I can think of reading, and I would highly recommend it to fantasy readers (those looking more for an immersive world rather than a lot of action, though I do think the actual plot is engaging, as well). I can predict now The Starless Sea will be on my list of my favorite books I read in 2020.