I finally read (listened to) The Starless Sea in the fall of 2020, and apparently I haven’t managed to share my review here on the blog yet. So let’s fix that! If you follow my reviews, you might remember that when I read and reviewed Piranesi I said that ended up being the book I hoped The Starless Sea would be. Hopefully after reading this review, you’ll understand why.
About the Book
The Starless Sea
by Erin Morgenstern
Published 5 November 2019
Genre: Fantasy, Magical Realism
Page Count: 498
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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.
Blurb copied from Goodreads.
My Rating: 4 Stars
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I wanted to love this book. The Night Circus is my all-time favourite stand-alone book ever, and I was so excited to finally get another Erin Morgenstern book. The ebook has been waiting for me to be ready, but when I finally discovered Libby and the fact that I could borrow audiobooks, it became time. As I type this review I’m actually still listening. The app says I’m 92% finished, and I know the remaining 8% won’t change my opinion.
This is classically Morgenstern’s eloquent writing style, and in the beginning that made me adore this book. I was so sure it was going to be a 5-star read and I was eager to keep going. It felt both fresh and familiar at the same time. I loved the book filed in fiction even though it was “mostly true, and the rest was true enough.” I loved Zachary and Kay and Dorian (forgive me if that’s not how they’re spelled, as I listened to this one.) I loved the intrigue of this secret society that fights to the death in shadows to protect their stories, and this underground world out of sync with time that’s some fantastical blend of Wonderland and the forest of pools from The Magician’s Nephew. I loved the “Once and Future King” flavoured reincarnation of characters who keep living the same lives and finding the same lovers.
And then the book kept going. And going. And going. Zachary has been told that he’s reached the end of the story so many times, yet he keeps falling into a different story, a different chapter, a different reality. At some point, Kay gets a female narrator and some POV sections that weren’t important until at least 80% into the story, even though she was a key character from the beginning. I think I’m more disoriented than Zachary is at this point and I’m ready to be done. I won’t DNF because I must find out which story Zachary ends up in and whether or not Dorian is there with him, or whether or not Kay ever finds out what became of her friend, but I won’t be returning to this book once it ends.
It’s a beautiful, meandering love story about stories, and I did like it. I just didn’t love it, and I felt that it took too long to find its ending.
Before I go I’d like to address the elephant in the room now that we’ve reached 2020 and started calling out white authors telling BIPOC stories. This is indeed a white author writing a BIPOC point of view character. Zachary just happens to be black (ethnically Haitian) and the fact is barely mentioned. He isn’t described often, his heritage is barely mentioned, and the book has nothing to say about racism or racial identity. As a white woman, I don’t feel qualified to comment on whether or not that’s better or more forgivable than actually trying to write a BIPOC’s minority experience in the real world, but if I weren’t paying close attention I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what Zachary looks like, and what he looks like doesn’t matter at all to the narrative. I’ve heard from several BIPOC reviewers who were excited to hear that the MC looks like them, but I wonder how many of them felt represented by Zachary by the end. None of his experiences in the real-world New York portions of the story mentioned anything that differs from how I would expect to experience those social settings, and I can’t tell if that’s the author’s failing or a reflection of how little Zachary seems to care about how strangers perceive him, but there weren’t any moments that reminded me that my experience is different like so many excellent BIPOC-authored fantasy books have done in the last year. I think this is why white authors are being begged not to write BIPOC points of view anymore. We get it wrong. We write otherwise white characters that just happen to not be. I don’t think the publication of this particular story will hurt anything for being a BIPOC-character story by a white author since it’s a magical realism literary piece that isn’t trying to say anything about the real world or real experiences, but I’m nervous that it will embolden upcoming white authors who think it’s okay to write oppressed voices who are trying to get their own stories out in the world.
My final thoughts on The Starless Sea are that if you like meandering love stories about stories, this might be perfect for you. If you loved The Night Circus and just want to read a new story in Morgenstern’s unique style, this will deliver. If you’ve been trying to decide whether or not this book is worth bumping up on your never-ending TBR, you don’t need to feel guilty about reading other things first. It’s beautiful and I’m glad I read it, but it’s very put-downable. It doesn’t call me back, and from what I’ve heard I’m not alone in that. It’s too beautiful to rate any lower than 4 stars, but too frustratingly long-winded and fluffy to call it a 5.
About the Author
Erin Morgenstern is the author of The Night Circus, a number-one national best seller that has been sold around the world and translated into thirty-seven languages. She has a degree in theater from Smith College and lives in Massachusetts.
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