Review: The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

42730332. sx318 SYNOPSIS:

Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student in Vermont when he discovers a mysterious book hidden in the stacks. As he turns the pages, entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, key collectors, and nameless acolytes, he reads something strange: a story from his own childhood. Bewildered by this inexplicable book and desperate to make sense of how his own life came to be recorded, Zachary uncovers a series of clues — a bee, a key, and a sword — that lead him to a masquerade party in New York, to a secret club, and through a doorway to an ancient library, hidden far below the surface of the earth.

What Zachary finds in this curious place is more than just a buried home for books and their guardians — it is a place of lost cities and seas, lovers who pass notes under doors and across time, and of stories whispered by the dead. Zachary learns of those who have sacrificed much to protect this realm, relinquishing their sight and their tongues to preserve this archive, and also those who are intent on its destruction.

Together with Mirabel, a fierce, pink-haired protector of the place, and Dorian, a handsome, barefoot man with shifting alliances, Zachary travels the twisting tunnels, darkened stairwells, crowded ballrooms, and sweetly-soaked shores of this magical world, discovering his purpose–in both the mysterious book and in his own life.

RATING: ☆★☆★☆

It’s a profoundly strange thing—to feel as though you are wading through mildly entertaining novels that pass through you like falling smoke, always searching for the one that reaches into the back alleys of your soul, and settles to the bottom of you like fallen leaves.

And then there it is, like a faint spark bobbing on a dark sea, calling you, beckoning.

The bliss of it is like what all the books you’ve ever read have been aspiring to be, the scales of what is good, great, and transcendent recalibrating in your head. The story that is a door creaking open in your chest, pouring light into that unyielding hollowness. A secret burning like a lantern in the center of you. Something you could crawl into if only you believed it hard enough.

To borrow some of Morgenstern’s words, “books are always better when read rather than explained.” Words fall short of this marvel, but I want you to read this book, so I had to try.

“For those who feel homesick for a place they’ve never been to. Those who seek even if they do not know what (or where) it is that they are seeking. Those who seek will find. Their doors have been waiting for them.”

A subterranean library where reality can be shuffled like a deck of cards—a drunken mangle of past and present. Stories that wander off the edge of the page, filled with teeth and armored with immortality. People who wander off the edge of the map,  perilously and fathomlessly free, unbounded, the unnameable future ahead of them—endless reams of blank paper. And the secret society undoing it all, unwinding the Starless Sea thread by thread, until it falls away.

And in the center of it all: Zachary Ezra Rawlins.

This is Erin Morgernstern’s much-anticipated second novel. The basics, at least. The bones. But stories—as stories often do—grow in the telling:

Zachary Ezra Rawlins stumbled across an authorless book in the library, and in the deepest, most unshakable part of himself where reason was useless, he knew—incontrovertibly, without a doubt—that it was narrating a long-ago event of his childhood. Back when 11-year-old Zachary found a painted door, unknowingly teetering on the invisible edge of a great cliff, but held himself back from the seething, teeming sea below. The door (and the unspoken invitation) was gone the next day, like a wave washing clean over sand.

But here was a second chance, a do-over, and Zachary clung to it with the self-propelling recklessness of hope’s last effort. The scattered uncertainties of his youth fell away. This was the unwritten story, still swelling in its hollows, breathing tendrils of magic into the air. But there’s a strange darkening, something nameless hanging on the horizon. Soon, dreams and nightmares start borrowing each other’s faces, and Zachary’s time is as sands running through an hourglass grain by grain.

“I think people came here for the same reason we came here,” Dorian says. “In search of something. Even if we didn’t know what it was. Something more. Something to wonder at. Someplace to belong. We’re here to wander through other people’s stories, searching for our own.”

The Starless Sea is a love letter to those of us dogged with the invisible burden of unbelonging that stirs us from the stillness and sends us out into the page in search of solace, those of us who carry stories like a secret talisman in our pockets and rub words for comfort until they are worn smooth as creek stones, those of us who once turned away from our own painted doors before we took courage and learned to feel the surge of fear and stifle it.

Emerging after 8 years—like a glittering literary cicada—with a remarkably powerful novel, Morgenstern holds our gaze for the space of a few hundred pages and fills it with what she wills.

The author’s imagination is keener than almost anyone’s. Her pen has a heart inside and warmth as fire does, and it plucked a string in me, every line coming forth like a note of music—drenched with meaning, spangled and thundering with it. Hers is prose that lingers in the blood, lit like a coal in your belly. A story that attaches itself, ravenously, to its readers, long after the words have run out.

With exacting precision while giving the impression of effortlessness, Morgenstern engineers a recklessly splendid plot, gliding through a series of high notes that trembles exquisitely almost without break, inviting the reader to wonder at the opulence of her craft. There are tales layered upon tales and characters free to wander, leaving their books to taste life in other stories. It all meshes together quite immaculately. The multiples narratives are connected by multiple, crisscrossing threads of character and plot, and Morgenstern balances upon them like a tightrope walker, dashing from page to page. As dizzying as it gets, she never once slips.

Morgenstern has invented her own brand of page-turner. As much as I wanted to sit back and luxuriate over the sumptuously varnished prose, I kept going, going, going, chasing after every sentence as if the words themselves were on horseback, wild and furious, racing after the riddles of Fate and Time, of pirates and tongueless acolytes, of weary travelers and wearier lovers, of foretelling sculptors and all-seeing Owls, before getting swept out by a rogue wave to the Starless Sea, swimming against riptides, finally staggering ashore to a landscape you couldn’t begin to make sense of yet still as familiar as the remembrance of a touch.

This novel is, above all, a love story—one that shone like light upon the waves of the Starless Sea, dazzling to blindness. Zachary and Dorian’s love tale was sometimes as fierce as joy, and sometimes like a knife blade pressed to my flesh. A held gaze in a sea of stares sliding past you as though you didn’t exist and you two are the only fixed points in a universe of motion. His voice like a phantom feather over skin—a storyteller’s voice—and his presence like a rope thrown into a churning sea. This person that is “a place you could lose yourself in, and never wish to be found,” as familiar as one’s own skin. This frenzied, fevered need to know one another. A love story you’ll want a return ticket to.

“And no story ever truly ends as long as it is told.”

Reader, The Starless Sea is a door standing open before you—step into it and let it step into you.


5 thoughts on “Review: The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

  1. Hi,
    I’m reading The Starless Sea right now and stumbled over your review. I loved reading your text because you captured exactly how I feel right now.
    Reading this book is like coming home to something familiar you haven’t thought you’ve looked for. And from the first page on it felt unlike anything I’ve ever read, like getting something really special, something unique and something incomparable to any other story ever written.
    I only have 100 pages left and I could cry thinking about the fact, that in just 100 pages the experience of reading this story for the first time will end. At the same time I can’t wait to start all over again and get even more lost in the story and discover all the more layers Erin Morgensterns book has to offer. She’s a genius and I never thought something could top The Night Circus – but she did.

    Thanks for your review and greetings from Germany from a fellow bookworm, Reni


  2. Ah I’m so glad I found your review via Twitter. I was looking for someone who loved The Starless Sea as much as I did. It was so beautiful. I’m a new follower and your blog posts are awesome. 🙂


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