The Starless Sea: Visually spectacular

Reposting to include Marion’s new review.

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

Given the success of her debut, it would be impossible to write about Erin Morgenstern‘s eagerly awaited follow-up without alluding to The Night Circus (2011). The bestseller accrued a mass following of ‘Rêveurs’ – the self-styled fanbase, named after the followers of the circus in the book. It inspired a formidable amount of tattoos and artwork on Pinterest, as well as being translated into thirty-seven languages, no less. It was always going to be a hard act to follow, but can Morgenstern live up to her own success?

The Starless Sea (2019) follows the tale of Zachary Ezra Rawlins, the son of a fortune teller enrolled at a graduate school in Vermont. Upon finding an old book at the university library, Zachary is shocked to find an incident from his own childhood on the pages. A series of symbols (a bee, a key, a sword) leads him to New York, where he attends a masquerade ball that leads him to meet the enigmatic Dorian, who opens the door to the secret world of the Starless Sea, along whose shores are great libraries guarded by a secret priesthood.

But the Starless Sea is under threat. A rival faction, the Collector’s Club, led by the formidable Allegra (who sacrificed an eye for the power of foresight), want to close all the doors to the libraries forever. What’s more, it is never entirely clear on whose side the protean Dorian is on and, since he emerges as the Zachary’s love interest, things become rather problematic.

Set out in this way, the plot seems relatively linear and straightforward: a classic, coming-of-age quest. But The Starless Sea functions more like a Russian doll: there are stories within stories within stories. Morgenstern intersperses Zachary’s narrative with vignettes of myths and legends and origin tales, some of which have an impact on the plot proper, others which do not.

The Starless Sea is self-consciously metaliterary: it is a story about storytelling. This technique does, at times, feel a little self-indulgent, especially as it seems to be a nod to fellow writers rather than to benefit the reader. Prose and plot are reminiscent of Neil Gaiman and Lev Grossman, and there are literary allusions peppered throughout the book. Whilst it gives the tale a feeling of depth and complexity, this can sometimes come at the expense of plot.

What cannot be denied is that the book is visually stunning; it seems that with respect to setting and theatricality, Morgenstern’s imagination knows no bounds. Just as the magic of The Night Circus lay in its worldbuilding, so too does The Starless Sea excel: there are rooms filled with doorknobs hanging from the ceiling and doors painted onto walls that open into other worlds. In one interlude, Morgenstern describes what once started off as a dollhouse that, after centuries of visitors adding to it, has become a dolluniverse: “A thimble becomes a trash can. Used matchsticks create a fence. Loose buttons transform into wheels or apples or stars.”

If fans of The Night Circus are looking for the same visual feast offered by Morgenstern’s debut, they will not be disappointed. Whilst the meandering plot and Russian doll story-structure detract from the pace, The Starless Sea instead offers its own mythos for readers to immerse themselves in. As the separate story strands are woven together, one thing is clear: Morgenstern’s imagination and ambition are undeniable.

~Ray McKenzie

Erin Morgenstern

Erin Morgenstern


The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsI’m glad Ray provided a thorough review that discusses the plot of Erin Morgenstern’s second novel The Starless Sea, because I can now spend most of mine simply thrashing about in a frothy green ocean of pure envy. I am envious. I envy. I’m mad as hell (okay, not really) that I will never in my lifetime write a book like this one.

I don’t have the kind of brain that can imagine a story this. I love reading them, though. I love the stories that are collages and palimpsests. I love the stories where each of numerous diverse characters carry bits of larger story without knowing it as they go on about their lives: characters, in The Starless Sea, like Eleanor and Kat, or the innkeeper. I love stories filled with ornate, textured layers. I like writers who aren’t afraid to linger over beautiful imagery, and are gifted and disciplined enough to keep the story’s momentum going even as we linger on the ruins of a harbor on the starless sea, or the image of a stag whose antlers hold lit candles, or the story of Fate and Time, told by a good-smelling man in the dark, or the conceit of a perfect sidecar cocktail.

The Starless Sea is slow-moving. The word I would use is “immersive.” I felt immersed in this world, with its terrors: a woman who is perfectly comfortable cutting off people’s hands, or an order that removes its acolytes’ tongues; and its indulgences, like a magical kitchen, a masquerade party, and its perfectly crafted trendy cocktails.

The book is not perfect. Instead, it’s excellent. While the resolution of Morgenstern’s beloved The Night Circus did not completely satisfy me, I was satisfied with The Starless Sea. One serious plot twist very near the end came up with inadequate foreshadowing, but it didn’t ruin the book. Like Ray, I rolled my eyes a bit at times when the author reached for whimsy when it wasn’t needed. Generally, though, the book unrolled like a labyrinth. To walk a labyrinth, you need faith. My moment of faith came early in the book, when Zachary Erza Rawlins, the son of a fortune teller, finds a book in his college library and reads about a moment from his own life. As with a labyrinth, if you have faith and walk the path, the book will lead you to its center.

I also love books about stories, and that is largely what The Starless Sea is about. It’s also about people and points of view, about belief, loyalty and love. It fits for me into a select group of books on an imaginary bookshelf in my head, with One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino, Little, Big by John Crowley, The Aegypt Quartet, also by Crowley, and The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow.

If you are willing to let yourself sink back and be engulfed by story and prose, and you have a high tolerance for whimsy, give The Starless Sea a try. I’ll just be sitting over here, quietly seething with envy.

~Marion Deeds

Published in November 2019. From the New York Times bestselling author of The Night Circus, a timeless love story set in a secret underground world—a place of pirates, painters, lovers, liars, and ships that sail upon a starless sea. 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.

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RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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One comment

  1. Kevin S. /

    I’m a member of a book club that read The Starless Sea in December. Our group was evenly divided between those that loved it and those that hated it.

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