Wednesday, February 5, 2020

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
Published November 2019 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Source: checked out from my local library

Publisher’s Summary:
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.

My Thoughts:
I adored Morgenstern’s debut novel, The Night Circus. I fell so deeply into it when I read it that it often took several minutes for me to readjust to reality when it was time to set the book aside. To say that I was eager to get my hands on her latest work would be an understatement. A nice fat work of fantasy seemed like the perfect way to forget that it was winter outside. I had such high hopes for this book.

And now I have such complicated feelings about it.

It’s a book about stories. It’s a book chock full of stories woven throughout the novel. Even better, most of the stories within the novel read like fairy tales or myths and you know how much I love fairy tales. We’ve read several different chapters of stories before we ever come to Zachary; in fact, we read the story from Zachary’s childhood before he does, before we even know it’s Zachary.
Alright, I thought, these stories are all going to tie together in some way as we go along and I’m all in for that. And like any good mystery, surely we’ll eventually learn what all of those symbols mean – the bee, the key, and the sword (to say nothing of the feather, the owl, the crowns, the hearts and the cats).
“A boy at the beginning of a story has no way of knowing that the story has begun.”
Morgenstern’s writing is gorgeous and she can paint a scene in your head like nobody else can. The rooms and tunnels and beaches of the Starless Sea and its Harbors came alive for me and I loved the way Morgenstern played with using different materials, sizes, and times. She’s got a sea made of paper confetti , stories written on ribbons and body parts, an entire scene set inside a dollhouse, and sea of honey. Morgenstern’s imagination has run away with her and she has clearly relished in showing off all of the worlds she can create. Which is, unfortunately, one of the ways this book fell flat for me.

The New York Times reviewer said it better than I can:
"Morgenstern’s attempt to mingle a dozen or so narratives into an intertwined myth is strangely devoid of tension for a book in which a nameless woman’s tongue is cut out on Page 10. We flit from story to story like bees — bees, keys, swords, crowns and hearts dance a heady symbolic gavotte throughout — never knowing where we might land, or who will turn out to really be who, or if the pirate is a real pirate or a metaphor, or whether any of it has a point. As a story about stories, Morgenstern’s latest contains the seeds of its own destruction: It abandons people in favor of theme."

Things got so complicated I could hardly keep up with where we were. More importantly, in a book where there are very few characters, it was really important to make me care about the characters. But I never really got attached to any of them. Which was a disappointment, considering that in the beginning, I was really into Zachary and his friend Kat and their relationship. But then Kat disappeared and I was never drawn fully into the characters again.

And all of those things that I expected to come together as the book went on? They didn't, not entirely. That might work for some readers. It was frustrating for me. Especially since where Morgenstern did bring things together, it really wow'd me. I wanted more of that. And all of those symbols? Again, some of them become clear. Others you'll have to figure out for yourself. Maybe all of that was the point. Maybe Morgenstern wanted to make her readers think. But I was too busy trying to figure out what was going on to think too deeply about what meant what.

If this book were 100 pages shorter, 100 pages less convoluted, I think it would have worked better for me. If there had been more interaction between the characters that explained their feelings for each other better, it might have worked better for me. If there had been less world building and more plot, it might have worked better for me. As is, I admire Morgenstern's writing, her incredible imagination, and the world she created. But I came away feeling I didn't get what I expected from the person who gave me The Night Circus.


  1. It's disappointing when the second book doesn't live up to our expectations!

    1. And it's so hard to do when you really loved the first book!

  2. I enjoyed Night Circus a lot. More than I thought I would. It took her a long time to get another book out so when this one came out, and so many were reading it, I thought.. great. Another book to enjoy. But complicated? I am not of the mind set these days to try to figure a book out. I just want it to be written in a compelling way and pull me in immediately. So, maybe this won't be that for me.

    1. I was just so sucked into The Night Circus - perhaps if that one wouldn't have raised expectations so high, I might have liked this one more. But then, I'm never much one for fantasy, either, so...

  3. That's too bad! I still need to read The Night Circus. I started listening to it last fall but had to give it back to the library and I've been listening to other things since then. But I loved what I had listened to. So disappointing that this one didn't quite work. I don't think I'd be up for this one. But I'll reassess after I finish the Night Circus soon. Great review as always!