Book Review: The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
From the Publisher: 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.
Full disclosure, I still haven’t read The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern’s first novel.
It took me a lot longer than expected to get into The Starless Sea, and I never did quite get wrapped up in the story. At first I wasn’t sure what it was, the style of writing, the cadence, but it is more complicated than that. I enjoyed all the little stories peppered throughout the myths and fables that come together was a real treat, and it was all those little tales that spoke to me. But, for me, the issue was with the main characters, that is where I was at a loss… there is no real development and I can’t figure out their motivations or purpose. I much would have rather read all the stories separated, putting them all together myself. Zachary Ezra Rawlins story never spoke to me… none of the focal characters did…
I am also not a gamer, sure I play a PS4 game here and there (Zelda, Child of Light, Unravelled), but it was a huge disconnect for me. I skimmed over sections and going back and rereading them, in case they help important tid-bits, but it wasn’t something I wanted to read about.
A few characters I would have loved to see more of was Simone and Eleanor, and the Owl King. The little bits of them we read about hooked me more than all the other characters combined. My imagination would wander off thinking about them… and dreaming up different areas on the many harbors of the Starless Sea we never got to visit and wondering if and where they all were, and more of their backstories, side stories, and more. I wanted more of those three.
One thing that stood out to me in this book is the description of smells… something I never thought about before, but I appreciated each time a new smell was mentioned, the rooms, the aftershave, ever little smell I could imagine and I happily sighed during these little treasures scattered throughout the book.
Not all books speak to all readers… and The Starless Sea, while conjuring images of scenes I want to paint, didn’t speak to me in the way I had hoped and expected it would. It’s trying too hard to be clever with all the metaphors, and paths, and bees, and keys… it was exhausting. Despite the fact that I didn’t love this book, there was still enough intrigue to bring me back after taking a day off from reading it. I wanted to know the ending, and I found a lot of rare gems I will pass on from this book, such as the tale of the innkeeper and the moon 🖤. All the little stories in this novel I can see myself sharing orally, while they are all part of a larger narrative, they hold their own as individual fables and myths, and I adored them all.
I wouldn’t say don’t read this novel, I think many people will love it even though I didn’t enjoy it as much as I hoped I still found this underground world Morgenstern created fantastical and inspiring. There are few who can build something as large and intricate as The Starless Sea and all its harbors.