THE STARLESS SEA | Erin Morgenstern
Hardcover: 512 pages
Publication Date: November 5, 2019
“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 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.”
A book is made of paper but a story is a tree.”
It’s been quite some time since Erin Morgenstern graced us with her fantastical masterpiece, The Night Circus. Eight years later, we have now been gifted with The Starless Sea. I might not love it as much as The Night Circus, but I do love it for its ability to capture stardust on the page.
I believe that it is an indisputable fact that Morgenstern is a masterful writer. Her prose is lush and vivid, nuanced and elegant. Her words roll and glide on the page, coaxing her readers into the ebb and flow of her lyrical style of storytelling. Her newest book is reminiscent of the enchanting nature of The Night Circus as she skillfully guides her readers into a gripping tale of magically enticing impossibilities and what-ifs.
This story is a story about stories. A book about books. A choose your own adventure that compels and disorients. It is a book lover’s gilded dream drenched in honey, a dream that spirals into endless hallways ending in multiple doors that challenge one’s sensibilities.
Morgenstern creates a kaleidoscope of dreams and eerie tales, all weaved together to form a larger picture that comments on the nature of the dream and the dreamer, the creation of stories and the telling of them.
A book is an interpretation…You want a place to be like it was in the book but it’s not a place in a book it’s just words.
I can wax poetic all day about the quality of Morgenstern’s writing, so I’ll try now to focus on the quality of the story. It’s an ambitious one, to be sure. And if I were being honest, it can be a bit of a chore to try to understand.
Morgenstern’s strength lies in her world-building. The world she has created in this book is so omnipresent that it in of itself becomes a character. So much so that the actual characters get lost in the midst of it. I’d be hard-pressed to give specific details about Zachary Ezra Rawlins. Much of what happens in this book has been impressed upon him. He is a reactionary character that walks along an uncertain path that has been constructed by creatures of a cosmic origin. I can’t really describe much of who he is without the Starless Sea and its Harbors, and I can say much the same about Mirabel, Dorian, the Keeper, and many of the other characters.
Usually I’d be a bit put off by the lack of character development and proper character arcs, but the setting is so potent and captivating that I’d be making an exception just for this book. I do have one issue in that the romance between Zachary and Dorian isn’t very hard won and it relies entirely too much on the personality of the narrative, which is overwhelmingly poetic and fantastical. It comes along too swiftly and isn’t very convincing by the whole.
Not all stories speak to all listeners, but all listeners can find a story that does, somewhere, sometime. In one form or another.
The Starless Sea is an intricate, wonderland of experimentation that guides readers through a journey outfitted with doors and keys, liquor and gold, honey and dreams. It is sweet and smooth, and very hard to understand. The miniature stories within the larger story are easy to connect, but the story outside the dividing paths can be a bit harder to grasp. Which is why I can see why this book might not be for everybody.
It can get a bit tiresome by the end to try to hold on to and understand such a multi-dimensional narrative frame. I can’t say that I comprehended every little detail. But I appreciate the work that went into constructing such a vast world of rational irrationality. The creativity of The Starless Sea, the language, and the imagery are delightful, aesthetic treats of expression.
And for that alone, I love this book. It’s not an easy thing to lose oneself to, but once you’ve fallen into this rabbit hole of pure literary madness, you have nothing to do but climb back out, slowly and surely, admiring all the twisty pathways and visual feasts Morgenstern has provided along the way. At times it may get tedious, repetitive, and even pretentious, but when you keep the focus on the setting and the overall magical nature of the prose and not think about the specifics, you can disappear for a bit and just let yourself dream.