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The Starless Sea


The Starless Sea

Ever since Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel, THE NIGHT CIRCUS, became a literary sensation, readers have been eagerly wondering what this imaginative young author would do next. Eight years later, we finally have our answer --- and it’s clear why it took Morgenstern nearly a decade to publish her second novel. Not only is THE STARLESS SEA a big book, clocking in just shy of 500 pages, it’s also a dense and structurally inventive one. An ambitious, fantastical work like this requires considerable mental gymnastics (but thoroughly enjoyable ones) on the part of its readers; one can only imagine what an undertaking it was to write.

Above all, THE STARLESS SEA is truly a love letter to the power of storytelling. Even its intricate structure speaks to this theme. The novel is divided up into several “books,” most of which are themselves composed of short, fairy tale– or fable-like chapters or vignettes, many of them set in the nebulous, mystical “starless sea” of the book’s title --- or, more specifically, in one of the countless Harbors that mark landing places along its shore. As the novel progresses, these fantasy chapters alternate with chapters from a story that starts in our world.

"THE STARLESS SEA is truly a love letter to the power of storytelling. Even its intricate structure speaks to this theme."

Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a college student studying video game design at a college in Vermont. He’s always been most drawn to the storytelling aspect of game design, to the ways in which video game characters are given choices, and what happens after they make a choice. He’s quite taken aback when he comes across a book in the college library, a book that seems like a collection of fairy tales or fables. But one of the stories is unmistakably about him, recounting one of his childhood memories, of a time when he encountered a (possibly) magic door and made the choice not to travel through it.

This book, of course, is the same one that readers of THE STARLESS SEA have been reading, and gradually episodes from Zachary’s life become increasingly entangled with the fantasy worlds of the book that Zachary and the reader are discovering together. Characters step out of the pages of the story and into Zachary’s life, and Zachary himself may make the choice to step out of his life and into the story.

THE STARLESS SEA is awash in symbols --- of bees, swords, keys, crowns, hearts and feathers --- as well as archetypal figures, such as the Owl King, a pirate (who might be just a metaphor) and the queen of the bees. It’s also full of doors, like a portal fantasy run amok (this element may remind many of Lev Grossman’s THE MAGICIANS), as they come to life, are destroyed, locked and reopened, lost and found again. Time and Fate intertwine, and characters can become lost inside the stories they inhabit.

At times, the sheer complexity of the world that Morgenstern has created verges on the overwhelming. But when readers just surrender to its beauty and inventiveness, they will be both surprised and satisfied by the magical realm she has imagined, populated with “[a] multitude of seekers looking for things they do not have names for and finding them in stories written and unwritten and in each other.”

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on November 8, 2019

The Starless Sea
by Erin Morgenstern