The Starless Sea

The Starless Sea
Erin Morgenstern
Difficulty: Hard
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Blurb from Amazon:

“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.”

We get a lot of retellings and reimaginings of classic fairy tales and myths, but not so many attempts at creating new ones. It’s no easy task, and the experience of reading Starless Sea is a quiet reminder of how much we rely on existing narratives and motifs to make sense of the world. Chasing bee, key, and sword symbols across a tapestry of separate but converging stories is an exercise in forbearance, resigning oneself to general disorientation as Morgenstern patiently works her way toward a unified narrative. But the final product is worth the effort. Readers of The Night Circus will already be familiar with her signature slow-moving, heavily visual brand of magical realism, and Starless Sea has it in spades. The mystery builds in momentum across the book’s ~500 pages and in the second half escalates into a full-on magical thriller, one all the more satisfying for the work both reader and author put in laying the foundation in the first half.

If the Amazon reviews are anything to go by, Starless Sea is probably not for everyone. It seems to have sharply divided its readers between those who found it pretentious and meandering, and those who think it’s an absolute masterpiece that trumps Night Circus. The key difference I observe between Morgenstern’s first and second books is the amount of effort she demands from her audience. Compared to Starless Sea, Night Circus was brisk, to the point, and heterosexual; all the mainstream reader had to do sit back and enjoy. But Starless Sea demands a bit of patience and a bit of work as Morgenstern sets the stage. And I’ll admit, sometimes it felt like too much. Constantly changing stories was a real momentum killer which, in a novel of this length, can be demoralizing. But her descriptive prose managed to make the experience a net positive, and by the time the action ramped up, I was completely on board.

As a bonus, enjoy this shrewd and penetrating critique from a top Amazon review:

“I also did not like the homosexual element. Homosexuals are fine with me. They are as normal as anyone, but I just don’t want to read about them. Give me/boy girl stories please?”