The Starless Sea, by Erin Morgenstern

Whatever happened to Fate? Fate appears in nearly every ancient story we have, as well as a far number of medieval and Renaissance works of literature. The idea of Fate seems to be something that we’ve left behind as a culture. But in Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea, the long-awaited follow-up to The Night Circus, we are given a completely original version of what might have happened to Fate. Once upon a time, Time fell in love with Fate. The stars wouldn’t have it and conspired to kill Fate. This act splintered the worlds; it took centuries and a lot of side quests to put things to rights.

None of this is apparent at the start of The Starless Sea. To be honest, it took me a long time before I was able to start putting together the big picture. Readers who would like to read Morgenstern’s new novel should remember the most important thing about The Night Circus: most of the time the scenery is the most important thing and not to fuss too much about the plot making sense. The Starless Sea runs with this principle.

The book begins (although the overall story begins much earlier) when a young man finds a strange book in his university’s library. The book isn’t in the library system, but a friend who works there lets him check it out anyway. The fact that the book is missing a lot of pages isn’t what gives our protagonist, Zachary Ezra Rawlins, pause. The fact that something that happened to him when he was a child is described in explicit detail in this weird book gives him great pause. With his interest truly and thoroughly piqued, Zachary leaves behind his life as a graduate student to go questing for answers.

Zachary’s journey is one of the strangest I’ve encountered in fiction, certainly in contemporary fiction. The Starless Sea runs almost in motifs rather than plot. There are bees, keys, stars, swords, moons, honey, crowns, feathers, and lots of dancing. As I said above, it took me a long time to figure out what was going on in this novel. There are so many layers, all linked with these motifs, that you have to pay attention to everything in order to fully understand this story about Fate in its attempt to resurrect itself. Seriously, every time I had worked out who some of the characters were (in their many incarnations) it seemed like Morgenstern would throw in another layer. You’ve heard the expression, “turtles all the way down“? Well, in The Starless Sea, it’s bees and honey all the way down.

Even though I’ve finish the book and I think I’ve worked out the novel’s thesis, I’m not sure how I feel about it. I liked a lot of it. But I wasn’t enchanted by it the way I was by The Night Circus. It took so much effort to figure out what the hell everything meant that I was never swept away by the admittedly gorgeous settings and mystical backstory. There are also just enough references to gaming and Choose Your Own Adventure that I had a hard time seeing the book as anything other than a literary puzzle box, instead of a story to sink into. I would only really recommend this to readers who love puzzles, who want something that requires a lot of thought and possibly some graphing paper. I don’t want to dismiss this book as bad. It’s not. The Starless Sea is a genuine feat of writing. I think my problem is that I didn’t read this book at the right time. But, perhaps, Fate put this book in my hands at this moment so that I have it in my inventory for later.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, for review consideration.

3 Comments

  1. Long-awaited indeed! I loved The Night Circus (although I do understand the criticisms about its focus on setting at the expense of plot – I barely realised there was a plot on my first reading) and I’m excited for The Starless Sea. Yours is the first review I’ve seen, so thanks for sharing your thoughts and giving a glimpse of what to expect. It sounds like it won’t be for everyone, but it could be for me.

    Liked by 1 person

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