The Starless Sea
Any novel by Erin Morgenstern is going to be a puzzle box of emotions, humor, slippery and sweet storytelling; an illusory tale through a dreamscape. The Starless Sea continues in the vein of the atmosphere begun by The Night Circus, though I must report it is – tragically – a step down from that book’s lofty heights. But for those who recall the fictional teller of The Princess Bride – another Morgenstern – this one definitely lives up to the name. Yet eventually all of that sweetness, all of that magic-making, all of that worldbuilding – it leads to no culmination, no point, and all the characters come across as underdeveloped. The Starless Sea is all frosting and a bit of cake, which, for some readers, will feel like paradise.
The Starless Sea combines, alternates and weaves a montage of folktales together with the story of Zachary Ezra Rawlins (who is frequently called by his full name which is, indeed, annoying). Rawlins is a Vermont-based graduate student in 2015 who has taken refuge in the school library for emotional comfort. He comes across books moldering away in the stacks filled with these tales; prisoners and pensioners, mermaids and pirates, fables and love stories, all swirling along, all oddly inexplicable in their location and existence in this library. And then Zachary, who’s been spending his time comfort-reading tales from his own childhood, is shocked that the latest book he picks out – The Little Stranger – contains his own life story, and he embarks instantaneously on a quest to figure why. Upon the book, he finds three symbols – a key, a bee, and a sword – which were exactly the same symbols etched upon a door in his mother’s fortune telling shop.
Using the three symbols as his epigram, Zachary is led to various enchanted (and enchanting) places in New York, all the while getting closer to the crux of the mystery. Ultimately, his quest takes him deep underground, to a magical library called the Collector’s Club – which is tightly controlled, to almost a menacing degree.
Dorian (not his actual name) is barefooted, blunt, immortal and running from trouble; Mirabel is intelligent, pink-haired and the guardian of the Club entire. Together with Zachary, Mirabel quests to rescue Dorian from the grip of the evil Allegra Cavallo. Will they succeed? Or are they involved in a much deeper, bigger story than either of them anticipated.
The Starless Sea is Morgenstern’s love letter to the art of the novel – which may be why it feels more like a worldbuilding exercise than an actual novel featuring characters worth caring about. Some will love that. Others will be frustrated.
Zachary himself is a nerdy, bespectacled everyman with little charisma who spends most of his time wandering around with his jaw on the floor at the sights he’s been presented with. He’s the most classic Author Insert to ever exist. He’s not a bad guy, so it’s not as offensive as it could be – but he’s just so bland. So helplessly bland.
I liked Mirabel the best of all of the supporting cast, though Dorian is rather fun. But it’s hard to really care much about the characters in this story. It’s a tale about craft: in part masturbatory, in part a love letter to the art of writing.
And you know that’s what you’re getting with Morgenstern. At this point, I simply wish her worldbuilding had landed and grown into something more interesting instead of faffing away with playful word games. Ah, well. A little bit of fun atmosphere is better than nothing at all. And this The Starless Sea has in spades. In spite of the shallow characterization and the gradual-unto-glacier pace, the all-frosting-no-cake atmosphere, the quality of the writing is undeniable, the sense of magic real, and altogether it ekes out a low-level recommendation.