The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
Maturity Level: 4
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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 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.
Morgenstern’s sophomore novel completely lives up to the years and years of waiting, and now of hype. It’s mature, nuanced, thought-provoking, and sensual. But it didn’t resonate in my bones the way The Night Circus did.
This wasn’t a book about books, it was a book about stories. The Starless Sea, or rather the harbor surrounding it, is so enchanting not because it is quirky or magical, but because all nature of stories live there. From the kind written in books or on paper stars, to stories in the form of a candy that melt in your mouth. I loved the fairy tales interjected between chapters of the main story line so much, better than Zachary’s story if I’m being honest. It’s impressive the way Morgenstern wrote fairy tales that felt timeless, as if they truly have been around for hundreds of years, being told and retold in the depths of The Starless Sea.
Morgenstern’s other major strength, star-crossed lovers, was back in full force in this novel. If you are a fan of epic loves stories spanning generations, than the story of Fate and Time is going to leave you as breathless as it left me. Which still had nothing on Eleanor and Simon. Be still my heart.
I loved the way this plot unfolded. Zachary is only part of the story, yet we see it unfolding from (mostly) his perspective. That means that for most of the book we have no idea what’s going on. Clues are given to us out of order, without anthem, and only start to come together about three hundred pages through. I adored the way all the little pieces started falling together, one at a time. I think this book is going to have tremendous re-read value now that I know what to look for.
That being said, this is definitely a book that isn’t for everyone. It’s quite slow, and the mysteriousness will leave some readers frustrated. The interludes are unclear at first, but since they are beautiful stories of themselves I personally found myself looking forward to them. I loved wondering, who are the pirate and the girl, and why have they been included?
To me the only weakness of the book was that the final push lasted for too long. Without giving spoilers, it’s hard to say much, but the deeper you go into The Starless Sea the stranger things get, and in my opinion that took a hundred pages too long. It lost momentum, and therefore interest. But the rest of the book was absolutely brilliant.
The Starless Sea itself was everything I hoped it would be. While this book was disappointingly not about pirates, few book lovers will fail to be enamored with the quirky, beautiful, crumbling harbor full of stories. If you liked reading about Celia and Marco’s rooms in Cirque des Rêves you’ll love the setting of The Starless Sea.
I highly recommend The Starless Sea for fans of The Night Circus and Naomi Novik. Truly beautiful.