Review: The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

If you’re anything like me, you’ve been anxiously waiting for Erin Morgenstern’s follow up to The Night Circus. The book exploded for good reason; there is simply nothing quite like it. It breaks any rules ever written about structure, it languishes for pages of visceral description, with the sights, flavors, sounds, and colors of a mysterious circus which rolls in and out of reality like a dream. And yet, it grounds the reader with vibrant characters who want so fiercely. A stunning ending then prompts tears and the compulsion to hug the book to your chest.

And now we enter The Starless Sea.

I had little background on this book when I opened to the first page, instead expecting the author to spin her beautiful words into impossible images and unforgettable characters—and she did not disappoint. Morgenstern once again redefines how a story should be told, beginning with short, seemingly unfinished fairytale-like stories that drip with intrigue and charm and force the reader to begin questioning, Why? Where are we headed? Questions that will keep the pages turning until the end.

The Starless Sea belongs to a genre I’m not sure exists but should: Book-lovers Books. We are grounded by the introduction of our hero—Zachary Ezra Rowlins, an introverted graduate student who reads more than he sleeps and dreams of designing video games. We’re distracted from our questions momentarily by a cozy university library buried in New England snowfall. One can almost smell aging books on their shelves, taste the hot chocolate laced with bourbon that Zachary plans for his afternoon of reading.

This plan is disturbed when he discovers a mysterious book with no author, a book in which his younger self is a character. A bit of sleuthing leads Zachary to New York City, to the elaborate literary costume party of any booklover’s dreams. After cocktails and dancing with a girl dressed as Max from Where the Wild Things Are, he's drawn into a dark room, a hand placed gently over his eyes. The hand belongs to the silver-tongued Dorian, who tells Zachary a story before inviting him to embark on the quest he's been hoping for.

This normal setting makes way for something magical, and the fairy tales we’ve been teased with leak into Zachary’s story until they become one and the same. In Central Park, he opens a door to an endless labyrinth of books and statues, of whispered stories and cat companions, of perfect cocktails and magical kitchens, of fate and time and romance. Morgenstern treats us to elegant, winding descriptions of things that only exist in her imagination, while paying homage to classic novels and video games with references to The Legend of Zelda and Alice in Wonderland.

But like Alice’s Wonderland, the Starless Sea has its dangers, and like every world we’ve discovered in a novel, it is threatened by those who would see it perish. Zachary follows his Max and the ever-intriguing Dorian on a journey he doesn’t quite understand, hoping (as we the reader do) to understand why he’s such a prominent character in this story.

In the deepest deep of Morgenstern’s rabbit hole, I did find myself wondering how so many honey-gold threads would tie together in the end. As satiated as I was by the fantasy of it all, and as willing as I was to spend time with these characters, I wondered if perhaps there were too many questions and not enough answers. I can imagine a reader with less trust would begin to feel overwhelmed by the constant shifting structure, in search of clarity. Nearly every chapter ends with a new question, and through Zachary’s pages of exploring, he uncovers few concrete answers.

Despite a fair bit of ambiguity, our protagonist’s story comes to a satisfying curtain. The Starless Sea was always so much bigger than Zachary, bigger than the underground library and its fairytales, bigger than the story contained within Morgenstern’s book. Any sea is too vast to be fully understood, and so I was happy to imagine the endless possibilities of this fantastic, sweeping world. Because in the end, that’s what makes any good story timeless.

The Starless Sea is available November 5, 2019

from your favorite indie bookstore.

Courtney Ellis is an editor for Timeworn Literary Journal. Fueled by Yorkshire Tea and blind ambition, she writes historical fiction. She sometimes peeks at Twitter.