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The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
5
Book Name: The Starless Sea
Author: Erin Morgenstern
Publisher(s): Doubleday (US) Harvill Secker (UK)
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy
Release Date: November 5, 2019

Zachary Ezra Rawlins, the son of a fortune-teller, is studying for his Masters in Emerging Media (video games). His peaceful, semi-solitary, existence is thrown off course when he checks an old book out of the university library. The book clearly predates Zachary’s birth, but it describes an odd incident from his childhood—a time when he found a door painted on the side of a wall and almost went through it.

Confused, fascinated and a little appalled, Zachary sets off in search of answers. His journey takes him through impossibly elegant ballrooms, into the hideout of a murderous secret society and down into a vast and sprawling subterranean library that perches on the honeyed shores of the Starless Sea. Along the way he’ll meet a fierce woman called Mirabel who may hold the key to both his past and future and Dorian, a mysterious and persuasive man who might just capture his heart.

But this book isn’t just about Zachary. It’s about the nature and rituals of the three orders that protect and manage the library on the Starless Sea—The Keepers, The Guardians and The Acolytes. It’s about a romance between Time and Fate which is savagely ended by a conspiracy of stars and owls. It’s about the many deaths of the Owl King. And the continuing explorations of a little girl who isn’t really lost at all. And a man lost in time. And a doll house that is almost a doll-universe. And a legendary sword. And an innkeeper who falls in love with the Moon.

It’s also about game theory, ideas coming to life, the dangers of obsession, the unexpected significance of cupcakes, the nature of stories, cocktails and the truths hidden in fantasy. All of this unfolds through a series of episodic and interlocking fairy tales that sprawl across time, space and literature. Characters read the tales of other characters in old books and will probably meet them later even as they are shown hints that these characters may just be metaphors for events in the ‘real world’.

Myth, metaphor and reality usually like to maintain a careful distance between each other, separated by a sheet of glass or the stroke of a pen. But in this novel, they’re locked in a passionate three-way embrace, knocking over tables and snogging each other senseless behind the bookshelves.

In short, The Starless Sea is a shimmering kaleidoscope of a novel. A fractured world of symbolism and dream logic with layers of meaning I could see critics and fans picking over and dissecting for years to come.

There are two ways to read this book. You can sift through each individual element in search of clues to what’s really going on. You can examine each new story, stroke your chin and flick back through the previous pages to see if it links up with anything that has gone before. You can propose multiple unified theories that explain everything that’s going on, even the bees. (Especially the bees.) You could probably start drawing diagrams and mind-maps and other mad things if you really wanted.

Or, like me, you can acknowledge that Morgenstern is cleverer than you and just let The Starless Sea wash over you in a tide of beautiful images.

And this book certainly is beautiful. It’s impossible for me to talk about The Starless Sea without mentioning Morgenstern’s debut novel The Night Circus. The Night Circus was a dark and gothic jewel that rates as one of my favourite fantasy novels of all time. And a lot of that was to do with the sheer artistry of Morgenstern’s words. I was hoping for that same exquisite beauty in The Starless Sea and I wasn’t disappointed. Morgenstern is a visual artist as well as a writer and you can really see that in her descriptions.

“Odes inscribed onto skin and pressed into rose petals.”

“An architectural fever dream in stone and ivory and gold.”

I want to visit the worlds Morgenstern creates. I want someone to give her vast amounts of money so she can, in real life, throw the kind of elaborate, tremendously imaginative parties she conjures up on the page.

If you enjoy speculative fiction told in gorgeous prose, then no one really does it better.

All that being said, The Starless Sea is not a sequel to The Night Circus and does not even acknowledge its existence. This novel very much forges its own identity. In some ways it feels more like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell than The Night Circus—it’s a novel where the main storyline is almost side-lined by constant asides and fragments of myth and folklore.

The Starless Sea is set in the modern day and is written in a fairly conversational style that displays a wry and upbeat sense of humour. This novel is a love letter to geek culture as well as to literature, fairy-tales and, of course, libraries. There’s still a sense of weight and mystery to the more fantastical sections and there’s certainly enough murder and peril to keep the story from seeming too light or frothy. But the prose never becomes turgid or depressing and we don’t ever go for too long without something amusing or quirky happening.

“Would you like a cupcake?”

“No.”

“Would you like two cupcakes?”

There’s also a sense that the majority of the cast are having fun, when they’re not fighting for their lives anyway. Food is delicious and delectably described, clothes are magnificent and there’s always something new and wondrous to see, experience or read.

I had fun too. When reading urban or portal fantasy, I’m often bored by the mundane life of the protagonist before they’re pulled into a fantastical world. But Zachary’s life is so delightfully geeky that I was having a good time just following him around the campus. (Zachary is a Ravenclaw and one of his friends runs a videogame-themed cooking channel, just so you know.) He investigates the Starless Sea just like most readers would—by going online and seeing what he can dig up. He even turns up references to Sunless Sea—a video game made by the creators of Fallen London. I’m guessing this is a cheeky tip of the hat from Morgenstern to an intellectual property that could be confused with hers.

The only thing that left me dissatisfied was the final resolution of the plot. It felt to me as though the characters had been caught up in a mechanism that delivered them to the end, rather than forging a destiny for themselves. Although, given the mythical nature of some of the characters, that may be the point. And it was most definitely an imaginative ending, even if it raised more questions than it resolved.

There’re not many authors I’d put on Morgenstern’s level. But if you haven’t tried her books before and you like anything by Patrick Rothfuss, Laini Taylor, Susanna Clarke, Neil Gaiman, Jacqueline Carey or Tanith Lee then you’ll most likely love Morgenstern. If you like your fantasy unique, clever, gorgeous and dream-like then this is the book for you. Even if you don’t like those things you should probably give it a go. It’s one of those novels that’s destined to spend a lot of time on ‘best of’ and ‘essential reading’ lists.

Disclaimer: I did not receive a review copy of this book but instead borrowed it from my local library. Support your local library!

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