Book review: The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

Title: The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

Publisher: Doubleday Books

Publication date: 5 November 2019

Genre: Fantasy | Adult | Literary fiction | Fabulism

Page extent: 498 pages

Rating:

Goodreads blurb: Far beneath the surface of the earth, upon the shores of the Starless Sea, there is a labyrinthine collection of tunnels and rooms filled with stories. The entryways that lead to this sanctuary are often hidden, sometimes on forest floors, sometimes in private homes, sometimes in plain sight. But those who seek will find. Their doors have been waiting for them.

Zachary Ezra Rawlins is searching for his door, though he does not know it. He follows a silent siren song, an inexplicable knowledge that he is meant for another place. When he discovers a mysterious book in the stacks of his campus library he begins to read, entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, lost cities, and nameless acolytes. Suddenly a turn of the page brings Zachary to a story from his own childhood impossibly written in this book that is older than he is.

A bee, a key, and a sword emblazoned on the book lead Zachary to two people who will change the course of his life: Mirabel, a fierce, pink-haired painter, and Dorian, a handsome, barefoot man with shifting alliances. These strangers guide Zachary through masquerade party dances and whispered back room stories to the headquarters of a secret society where doorknobs hang from ribbons, and finally through a door conjured from paint to the place he has always yearned for. Amid twisting tunnels filled with books, gilded ballrooms, and wine-dark shores Zachary falls into an intoxicating world soaked in romance and mystery. But a battle is raging over the fate of this place and though there are those who would willingly sacrifice everything to protect it, there are just as many intent on its destruction. As Zachary, Mirabel, and Dorian venture deeper into the space and its histories and myths, searching for answers and each other, a timeless love story unspools, casting a spell of pirates, painters, lovers, liars, and ships that sail upon a Starless Sea.

It’s hard to review a book that makes you completely speechless, one that immerses you so completely it is difficult to emerge from. Whenever I put this book down, I found myself wandering in a daze as I struggled to get back to reality. I found myself grumpy and snappish when I had to stop reading to do daily chores, because this book felt so perfectly escapist that it was a joy to journey into in the current climate. Behold and watch me try to write a review that is even one percent as beautiful as this book was!

“Having a physical reaction to a lack of book is not unusual.”

It is, at its heart, a love letter for readers and storytelling, mythology and fantasy. The Starless Sea is a journey for the reader who longs to escape, for those of us who wish to disappear into the books we read every day rather than face the reality around us. And it brought that escape so thoroughly and wonderfully, I felt close to tears when I finished, as well as sheer wonder and astonishment, as I longed to return to the world.

The Starless Sea is a maze of several different stories, crossed paths, and twisting journeys. We follow Zachary Ezra Rawlins after he reads a library boo, and finds himself appearing in the pages, an event from when he was a young boy, but definitely him. But the book has missing pages, and so he can’t read the rest of his story and so begins a quest he doesn’t yet know the end of. As he tries to track down the origins of the book, he crosses paths with Dorian, a storyteller Zachary is immediately drawn to, and Mirabel, a door maker. And if you believe enough, if you long enough for something, then those doors might just lead somewhere. (Yes, to a magical library BOOM).

“It is a sanctuary for storytellers and storykeepers and storylovers. They eat and sleep and dream surrounded by chronicles and histories and myths.”

Interspersed with Zachary’s journey are several different stories from other travellers to the library. Whilst each story appears unconnected the first time we meet it, each subsequent appearance reveals more of these crossed paths and more hints at where Zachary’s story must lead. One of my biggest thrills in reading is that moment of realisation, when all the hints and foreshadowing and different stories all come together in a lightbulb moment as you realise what’s actually going on. And The Starless Sea is a book filled with that moment again and again and again – because this magical library is just that: magical. It sits outside of time, and so time passes oddly and inconsistently, bringing all these characters paths together and apart, with Zachary, Dorian and Mirabel at the centre.

“It is easier to be in love in a room with closed doors. To have the whole world in one room. One person. The universe condensed and intensified and burning, bright and alive and electric.”

The Starless Sea is about love. Zachary and Dorian’s connection, desire and yes, love, is reflected in the stories interspersing their journey, as they travel a path others have journeyed before. Their love is that seen in Romeo and Juliet, they are the star-crossed lovers, they are the couple Time and Fate have longed to bring together, and this love burns through the story. It feels so substantial, as if they’ve lived this story so many times before, their love given power and life through the stories around them. I feel like it needs no stating, but this story is no realistic contemporary. It isn’t a story about a love that makes sense or a love that grows in a sensible, timely manner. This is a story about the magic and joy and escapism in storytelling, thus their love reflects this: it is the passion and urgency, desire and all consumingness that comes with Juliet’s poison and Romeo’s dagger. Much like the library represents that mystery and magic, escape and lifeline that readers long for, Dorian and Zachary’s love represents the desire and connection we long for and see time and time again in the stories we read. Like I said at the start of my review, The Starless Sea is a love letter to storytelling and the longing stories bring out in us: the longing for escape, the longing for love, and the longing for that special feeling that fills us when we are overwhelmed by a good book.

Like Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, the writing and prose is of course beautiful and mesmerising. It’s like getting lost in all of your favourite books at once. The world she has created is the one we all long to go to, the place where we belong and wish we could stay forever.

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“Not all stories speak to all listeners, but all listeners can find a story that does, somewhere, sometime. In one form or another.”

The Starless Sea is not a book for everyone. I’m sure the slow, winding journey through several different stories is not for everyone, it doesn’t have a familiar structure and I can completely see why it may be confusing or meandering to a different reader. If you’ve never known the desire to disappear inside a book, this isn’t for you. But to those of us who read to escape, who live and breathe the books they read, who long to disappear inside the stories, then this story is a love letter to you, and everything you imagine when you read.

In other words: I fucking loved this.

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