Eight years after Erin Morgenstern’s smash hit ‘The Night Circus’, we were finally blessed with the highly-anticipated ‘Starless Sea’. Filled with whimsical adventures, littered with nudge-nudge wink-winks to any hardcore fantasy lover and an unusual setting that makes my geeky little heart sing, the 162k word novel didn’t disappoint.
*There’s gonna be minor spoilers for ‘The Starless Sea’ ahead, so don’t say I didn’t warn ya!*
‘The Starless Sea’ is an unusual book, that’s for sure. Opening with a tale about a pirate – who’s also a metaphor – who’s also an actual character – the story quickly changes to focus on uni student Zachary Ezra Rawlins – introverted geek who views the choices in life like those you take in a video game. Bam. The story changes once again, telling tales about characters we haven’t met yet.
The whole book is like this. The main character is, indeed, Zachary – his adventures are the focus of our journey – but every other chapter is followed by a short story. Whether it’s a short story about the moon being in love with an innkeeper or a tale about a girl with bunny ears lost in an endless library, each time the tale twists and turns, offering an unusual character-hopping perspective.
It might be confusing – or even annoying – to some readers, but there’s a method to the madness – one that’s revealed pretty quickly. See, the premise of ‘The Starless Sea’ is that when Zachary was a wee little boy, he discovered a painted door, one he was sure would open if he just turned the handle. Alas, he did not, and that mysterious door haunted him forevermore. Jump to adulthood, and Zachary finds a book which details just that – his exact experience of a young boy stood before a painted door.
Naturally, Zachary is freaked out, and continues to read more and more. While there are tales of pirates and bunny-eared girls leaping about the place – and some pages missing – the book, ‘Sweet Sorrows’ seems to be detailing his life.
And that’s where those short stories come in. We’re reading excerts of ‘Sweet Sorrows’ with Zachary, trying to piece together the puzzle along with the main character. It’s marvellous story-telling, and a fantastic use of structure, and one that I’ve never come across before in all of my years delving into the fantasy genre.
Everything becomes clear the more you read – as it should do with any good book. Morgenstern wraps most thigns up together with a neat little bow, from the doll house to the endless references to bees (inspired by Grossman’s ‘The Magicians’, incidentally). It’s so satisfying to discover what on Earth is actually going on in the tale, with layers and layers and layers of story unfolding with each page. It will also make for a wonderful re-read when I get around to it, knowing who some of the characters are from the off-set will make for an entirely different experience.
Some of it relies on the reader not thinking about it too hard. Unless I missed something, it’s unclear why Zachary is the one who’s been foretold to lock away the story at the end of the tale – other than the fact that he’s the main character, I guess.
Zachary Ezra Rawlins started off with such premise. A geeky, introverted, gaming-loving guy is very much my vibe. As the story went on though, I screaming for him to actually do something! Anything! Please! He just meanders about from plot point to plot point, doing whatever everyone else tells him to do. He takes the inital steps to embark on his journey at the beginning of the tale, but as the story goes on he’s just… there? A main character that takes decisive action – even a few times – would’ve made it for a more engaging, exciting read.
It is addressed in the book, though. Kind of. With Zachary being a book-worm, and books featuring heavily throughout the story, it’s often very meta – which I’m a big fan of. Towards the end of the novel, Zachary questions whether he’s grown as a character and had the character development he should have at this point. While I appreciate the self-aware lens, the answer it still a categoric no, which doesn’t excuse the fact.
Yeah, sure, Fate and Time are actual players in this novel, and Fate has been guiding Z every step of the way. But, as she herself says towards the end of the book, she hasn’t made him do anything – she’s only left doors for him to open. Zachary taking control of his own fate and destiny would’ve been a much more engaging read.
Don’t get me wrong: I adore this book. It’s stuffed with whimsy and atmosphere. At every other page there are books, candles in tea cups dripping with wax, pirate boat paintings with bunnies for a crew, an endless library, a sea made of honey, an entire world made from tiny objects. There’s a sculpture of Fate made from ice, with tiny little ships trailing from her dress. The general vibe of the book is almost stifling, like a thick, heavy incense that consumes your lungs, making it difficult to breathe, but you still relish in the scent nevertheless. If you’re not a fan of whimsy and fantasy, this a book to steer very clear of. If you’re like me and adore it, you’ll likewise adore this book. At times it honestly felt as though it was written for me.
The various side characters all have a significant part to play, too. Don’t be fooled into thinking they’re fodder to bulk the book out, oh no. Each one is placed meticulously for a purpose, and it’s brilliant watching that purpose play out. Kat was a true highlight for me – with her getting her own every-other-chapter-style-prose in the last segment of the book. I wish we’d have had even more of her! Going from a third-person perspective to Kat’s first diary-style POV was a risk, but one that paid off tenfold. A Kat spin-off, please?
Dorian, too started with the promise of being an unforgettable character. I just felt as though his relationship with Zachary moved way too fast. They both suddenly developed these intense feelings for each other from a couple of nights spent drinking, aaaaaand, well, that was that? They’re both determined to get back to one another – at whatever the cost. I wish we’d have spent more time with the two of them, seeing their relationship grow and blossom. I ship it, don’t get me wrong, but it just felt too… hollow.
For all of my nitpicks with ‘The Starless Sea’, I loved each and every second I spent with it. It’s actually got me back into reading – after having a few months break from digesting the written word, and for that, I’ll forever be grateful.
Some stories stick with you. They resonate with you, in your heart. And, for me, despite its flaws, ‘The Starless Sea’ is one of those tales. It’ll be tucked away in a little corner of my mind forevermore.
From that ambigious ending, I just hope that we get a sequel. I need more whimsical fantasy in my life, please! And give Zachary his chance to shine!
For more geeky stuff, check out why Margo is my favourite character in ‘The Magicians’. Or, read about my journey to getting the platinum trophy for ‘Dragon Age: Inquisition’. (Incidentally, ‘The Magicians’ and ‘Dragon Age’ inspired ‘The Starless Sea’. It’s not wonder I loved it). Or, for more on books – check out my list of literature that would make for an amazing video game!