The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

November 4, 2019


The Starless Sea

by Erin Morgenstern
November 5, 2019 · Doubleday
Science Fiction/Fantasy

Is Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea the most anticipated sophomore novel of 2019? Based on the exhilarated book noises on my Twitter feed, the answer is yes. I was a high school freshman when The Night Circus came out and picked it up because it was on my library’s “new and exciting” shelf (thank you, awesome school librarians). I adored it — it was magical storytelling from start to finish. At the time, I made a mental note to purchase Morgenstern’s next work in a year’s time. Unfortunately for me, it would be eight years before the next book. After what seemed like eternity, I wondered if The Starless Sea could possibly live up to eight years of bubbling yet excruciating anticipation.

Graduate student Zachary Ezra Rawlins discovers a mysterious and mishelved book in his university library collection. Bursting with interwoven tales of guardians, acolytes, and keepers by the starless sea, the book also contains an anecdote from Zachary’s childhood. As a young boy, he came across a magical door that called to him; wavering between the urges to tip over into the unknown or cling to familiar safety, he chose the latter. The door vanished the next day, and the book cryptically points out that Zachary hadn’t then found his way to the starless sea. Not yet, anyway.

The “not yet” haunts Zachary and the revelation of his missed opportunity turns his world upside down. Obsessed and bewildered that a book (especially one that was donated in 1993) had predicted his life before birth, he attends a masquerade in New York City in an effort to unmask the enigmatic secrets surrounding the starless sea. What transpires is a breathless and bewitching quest to protect, understand, and traverse the starless sea and the stories preserved within. Written words tangle up with real life until the separate strands become indistinguishable, and Zachary reclaims his lost opportunity in an enthralling adventure. Filled with fables, pirates, painters, libraries, and romances originating from the birth of time, The Starless Sea is an homage to storytelling and a love letter to literature.

After finishing The Starless Sea, I came to two conclusions:

  1. If you disliked The Night Circus (e.g., the non-linear narrative seemed irritating and disjointed), you will likely dislike The Starless Sea.
  2. If you loved The Night Circus, you will likely love The Starless Sea provided the shallow characterization of the non-central romantic relationship doesn’t bother you within the grander scheme of things.

Yes, my review grade is a B-, but I still believe that The Starless Sea is a triumph in magical storytelling. Imagine a thousand-piece puzzle, but you start out with zero puzzle pieces. You have to wait for new pieces to appear in the box and the process is gradual. You don’t know what image you’re trying to piece together, and the initial puzzle pieces don’t even seem to form one coherent image. You can sense with growing frustration that it’s all supposed to fit, but it’s not quite there just yet. So you keep sifting and trying new combinations, gaining more and more success as new pieces appear.

Sometimes your first predictions are wrong, so you growl under your breath, recalibrate, and try another arrangement. It requires faith, patience, and maybe a glass of wine (ignore this advice if you’re under twenty-one). After a while, you finally understand. It is one cohesive puzzle and not separate entities. It fits. Hallelujah! The electrifying elation you sense while gazing at the finished product isn’t just because you finally comprehend the image. The satisfaction stems from the process, especially the thrill of putting clues together and finding connections between two dissimilar pieces.

Reading The Starless Sea feels like solving that puzzle: It’s a crisscrossing story within a story within a story within a story. Only that fourth story is also somehow the first story, but you don’t realize it because the initial appearance is different. Oh, and there’s also an eleventh story that somehow intertwines the second and seventh story together. Now multiply that by infinity. Forget eight years — I’m shocked it didn’t take Morgenstern a quarter of a century to type out a first draft.

If the prospect of a non-linear narrative sounds torturous, then you are not The Starless Sea’s intended audience. I loved it, but I also don’t mind eagerly trying to connect disparate threads while the story enfolds. It’s around five hundred pages, which normally takes an average of five hours for me to read. I spent, however, over nine consecutive hours pouring through the pages and carefully slotting each new detail into my brain. The Starless Sea cannot and should not be skimmed; the slower it’s read, the better. It’s a book to be savored and admired. Morgenstern is a master at third person present tense while constructing sentences to inspire wonderment and anticipation. I feel awkward describing her expertise because my poor attempts to praise it pale in comparison to the text.

If I’ve been unclear about what actually happens in the book, that’s on purpose. Forget not spoiling: it would be impossible to do justice to even ten percent of the plot in under four hundred words. If you’re going to read it, go in without any prior knowledge (well, my initial summary is vague enough that it won’t ruin anything). I know “the journey is the destination” can be an irritating cliche, but hey. Cliches are cliches for good reason.

Without entering spoiler territory, I will say that Zachary is an endearing and relatable protagonist. He’s an introverted video gamer and writing a thesis (oh, the latter is unnervingly familiar to me). But more importantly, he’s a reader. Stories aren’t an important part of his life; they are his life.

In the skylighted atrium, he shakes the snow from his boots on the rug by the entrance and drops The Catcher in the Rye and The Shadow of the Wind into the returns box, wondering if halfway through the second year of a master’s degree program is too late to be unsure about one’s major. Then he reminds himself that he likes Emerging Media and if he’d spent five and a half years studying literature he would probably be growing weary of it by now, too. A reading major, that’s what he wants. No response papers, no exams, no analysis, just the reading.

This description of Zachary occurs early in our introduction to him. After that last sentence, a loud “oh god, YES” unknowingly slipped out of my mouth. There may be superficial differences between us, but we are so similar in the ways that matter. The dread he feels about his lost opportunity to open the door? That’s how I feel every day. I’ve spent most of my life reading about fictional characters leading exciting lives, taking charge of their destinies, and vanquishing their foes to earn a happy-ever-after. I’m only twenty-two, but sometimes it feels like I’ve missed the call to go out and pursue my own adventures.

Where was my Hogwarts letter on my 11th birthday (though I did receive a very thoughtful and treasured facsimile as a present from my sister)? When I investigated the wardrobes of every house I visited, why didn’t any of them extend beyond a sturdy and disappointing back wall? Forget magic — why haven’t I done anything that’s as brave or exhilarating as my favorite fictional characters? By attending school for sixteen years and preparing for a conventional career path, have I rejected that door, too?

I don’t know. These are questions that don’t really have answers. Perhaps I’m being ridiculous since I have plenty of time to take charge of my own story. All I know is how much I empathized with Zachary and how much I thrilled at his opportunity to reclaim that lost door. Maybe it’s not my turn yet, but it was oddly cathartic and vicarious to watch Zachary seize his moment. In times of strife and uncertainty, we may not know much. But we both believe in books. It’s that belief that steadies and centers him, even when the world is falling apart and nothing is decipherable. Life may be senseless at times, but the stories are always there.

He believes in books, he thinks as he leaves the room. That much he knows for sure.

All this praise and only a B-? I went back and forth on this grade for days. My first instinct after completing the book was, “My god, it’s a masterpiece. A.” Then I realized that wasn’t quite accurate because of the bubbling frustrations that I tamped down every once in a while. I sketched an outline of all the things I liked/didn’t like. My irritation swelled when I analyzed the book from a bird’s-eye perspective.

My primary annoyance with The Starless Sea is the undeveloped and shallow characterization of the romantic relationship. This romantic subplot is not central, but it’s important enough that any later mentions actively ruined my reading experience. Zachary is gay and he has a love interest. The first time they meet, they spend a brief amount of time together before they go their own ways. Once they reunite much later, they become emotionally attached without any warning. One second they’re separated; the next, little cupid hearts are fluttering around their shoulders. It’s reminiscent of a fairytale with love-at-first-sight, and I think it’s intentional because fairytales are integral to the narrative structure. I don’t deny that it’s romantic or emotionally engrossing. Morgenstern has a way of words so that you can’t help but feel everything, even if there’s no basis for it. And there is no basis for this love. None.

I wouldn’t be opposed to a love-at-first-sight situation if they spent the rest of the novel together. This does not happen! They are (almost immediately) separated again and go about their own quests to achieve A Certain Goal. They spend most of the novel apart. I didn’t bother to go back and count, but I’d be shocked if the number of pages spent in the same room exceeded fifty (not counting the pages where someone is unconscious and unable to talk).

During the second separation, they frequently think about each other and yearn to reunite. Again, this is emotionally riveting because Morgenstern is an exquisite writer. The longing from both parties practically vibrates the pages. But this does not erase the fact that I don’t understand why they’re meant to be together! Have they spent any meaningful time with each other? Nope. It’s hard to get to know someone when you’ve barely had any conversations. What about the other person appeals to them? Your guess is as good as mine.

Rather than constructing a romantic relationship centered on shared experiences and companionship, the love story flourishes in insta-attraction and solitary longing for each other. It’s as though they’re fated lovers because the story necessitates it, not because the book puts any legwork into building up the foundation beneath the emotion and well-crafted prose. I’m expected to feel angst about a separated couple when I never understood why I was supposed to root for them in the first place. To cap it off, the love interest is an opaque character that I never quite grasped because 1) he has the least number of POV scenes and 2) little attention is given to his past compared to other characters. Argh.

Am I being too harsh? I don’t know. I’m a romance reader first and foremost, so any romantic subplot (even when it’s not central) is important to me. I read every book via that lens. This subplot is minor in the grand scheme of things, and most readers probably wouldn’t 1) notice or 2) care if they noticed. The most irritating thing about this whole debacle is that there is another romantic subplot, and that one is exquisitely developed. I adored that pairing and wanted more because it was so well-done. So if The Starless Sea could handle that romance perfectly, then why couldn’t it give Zachary his due? I don’t find eternal separation to be emotionally satisfying, but your mileage may vary. It’s one frustration rolled after another.

Truthfully, I have no idea how to grade The Starless Sea. I fluctuated from an A to a C for an entire weekend. My handwritten notes about spoilery book opinions are indecipherable because I kept on crossing things out, adding arrows to slot in a forgotten point, and drawing frowny faces with little tears slipping down the cheeks. At one point, I gave up entirely and attempted to sketch a pirate ship on the starless sea (it is very bad and shall never see the light of day).

On one hand, I firmly believe that Erin Morgenstern’s storytelling is unparalleled and I can’t think of another author with more intricate plotting or ambitious narrative structure. Surely that alone merits an A. On the other hand, I can’t abide a half-baked romantic subplot that constantly poked little thorns of ire. Gah! There is so much I love about The Starless Sea; I stand by my earlier assertions that it’s a masterpiece in storytelling and that fans of The Night Circus will likely love it. But if I were to honestly measure my emotional reactions to the book, the final result would be a B-.

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