REVIEW: The Starless Sea – Erin Morgenstern

Author: Erin Morgenstern (twitter / website)

UK Publisher: Vintage

Genre: Fantasy

See also: The Night Circus

Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student in Vermont when he discovers a strange book hidden in the library 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 a subterranean 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.

If you remember my review for The Night Circus, you’ll know I love it. But it’s been so long between the release of it and The Starless Sea that I honestly felt nervous about starting the new book. It’s a brand new stand alone story. Would I love it? Would it be totally different? Would it live up to the the first book? I also wasn’t entirely sold on the cover when it was first revealed, I’ll be honest. It seemed so patchworky, where I loved the cover of The Night Circus.

One of the criticisms I’ve seen of The Night Circus is that it is more aesthetic and less plot. I don’t entirely agree with this assessment – there is, yes, a lot of aesthetic, but it’s crafted around a love story and a game which is quite magical to watch unravel. Well, Morgenstern took the aesthetic narrative style and absolutely ran with it for The Starless Sea. It’s like she went “ah yes, everyone loved the style of my first book, how can I get the same reaction, but more and specifically from book nerds?”

Set it in a giant damn magical library, that’s how.

Something that felt initially a little jarring to me was that Zachary was introduced as a new media student, designing video games. The message comes across as the plot develops, that stories can come in all sorts of formats and in be told in all sorts of ways. Weirdly, films aren’t mentioned in it, but theatre gets a nod, as do stories bottled as wine, baked into sweets, sculpted into ice. It’s similar to some of the scenes mentioned in The Night Circus in the magical tents, but they’re given a bit more grounding here.

Much like its predecessor, this book also plays with structure, although somewhat less so with time. The book is split into sections, and each section alternates between chapters following Zachary and chapters from other books within the library which begin to tie together the story as it progresses. To begin with I found this made it difficult to settle into the story, and it felt a bit choppy, but as threads began to weave together it became more cohesive. However, unlike The Night Circus, the plot in this is a little less clear-cut, a little less driving. Perhaps because it’s a book about stories for the sake of stories, stories which don’t have to have points or endings, just stories. That makes it slightly slower to read as well. It takes time to reveal its direction, and a bit of patience and digging.

There are a couple of love stories hidden within the pages. Zachary is gay, and his story mirrors and interweaves the other love stories from the books-within-the-book. Unfortunately, the nature of the tangled stories means that Zachary and his love interest don’t spend much time together, at least when they’re both conscious. It’s a sweet love story, and it’s a very small niggle. But where The Night Circus had our two leads weaving each other love notes through tents and spells, this isn’t the case here. Tonally it’s very similar, and it’s almost not noticeable, but when I realised it I wished I’d had more time seeing them interact and grow to love, rather than just following an almost mystical pull and attraction.

While Zachary is prominently LGBTQ+, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of explicit BAME representation. There may have been implications, but when I tried to flick back to find them, I struggled to find character descriptions – it’s a very dense book. And, like The Night Circus, it seems strange that this is the case. The library in The Starless Sea can be accessed from anywhere, from hidden doors around the world. Why aren’t there more characters from different parts of the world? There’s a character from Spain, there’s not much else.

It has some themes in common with The Ten Thousand Doors of January, in the conceit of secret, hidden doors, and the people destroying the doors to stop people using them. The purposes are different, and the stories are entirely different, but where The Ten Thousand Doors of January looks at the possibilities of the worlds beyond the doors and the people they can bring together, of belonging and race and society, The Starless Sea looks at stories instead of people. This is a strange choice, given that all stories are about people, or told by people, or have humanity and culture integral to them. The range of voices and stories possible if you considered the world of people and countries contributing to them would be incredible. Instead, it seems to focus mainly on Western stories, or at least stories modelled around that style, that format.

It’s a beautiful book, which is perhaps why I’m being so nitpicky. If you loved The Night Circus you will love this, if you are looking for a story which gives you a gorgeous new book aesthetic, this is the place. It’s going to inspire beautiful art, and events, and costumes. I can’t wait to see them. I just perhaps wish that there had been sprinkled through that some more thought of how other stories and cultures could be brought into it to make it really feel like a full world of narratives.

Briefly:

  • A lyrical, beautiful, aesthetic book, perfect for fans of Morgenstern’s first book. It really ramps the style up to the next level, and like The Night Circus will make for beautiful designs.
  • It’s dense and slow to get going I found, with narratives split between the main story and short stories from imaginary books. As the book continues this works beautifully, but to begin with it can feel like it slows your reading down.
  • I wish there had been more of the wider world in it. The conceit is of a complete world of stories, of travellers throughout civilisation, but there seems to be only one kind of voice here.

Rating: 4/5 – it’s a beautiful, lyrical book, but I’m not sure I’ll come back to it as often as The Night Circus. It feels more dense, harder to wade through. Like… honey, aptly enough. I’m glad I got it, and I’m glad I’ve read it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s