The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern is more of a phenomenon than a novel. It is truly unlike anything I have ever read. It is a story about stories. About characters, metaphors, endings, beginnings and fate and love. It is a fairy-tale and an epic and a short story collection. It is a stunning work that was worth the eight year wait from the release of Morgenstern’s debut, The Night Circus.
The narrative throughline, perhaps the easiest to explain, is the story of Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a graduate student who discovers a very old book at his school’s library. In this book, aptly titled Sweet Sorrows, by an unknown author, Zachary discovers a memory from his childhood among a collection of whimsical stories, a piece of almost reality among a fairy-tale-esque volume. When he begins to investigate the book, he happens across a literary party in New York City, from a photo on the internet of a woman wearing a bee, key and sword necklace, the same motifs that show up again and again within the book. In New York, Zachary is whisked away by a bright haired young woman and a startlingly handsome man and led, through a twisting labyrinth of circumstances, to an underground library where he begins to uncover secrets and conspiracies and fate all wrapped up within volumes of books.
I didn’t know much about the book going into it so I feel it best not to explain more. I can tell you that I was drawn in by the stories and amazed at how the smallest details came creeping back to hit you over the head like an anvil pages later. It’s an impressive length and worth every page. I just finished last night and am still feeling breathless by the characters and the story. At all times, from the first few pages to the very end, I felt like I was walking through the story like Zachary. In the best of ways, I felt as if I was playing this out like an immersive video game, an experience that was probably intended. Zachary is an emerging media student and studying video games after all. And like the best stories, I wondered at times if I wasn’t getting everything, if moments will hit me later when I least expect it and in that way the story will just stay with me for a long time, the way the best stories do. I can already imagine the echoes that this book will leave upon culture, key and sword and bee tattoos, stickers, merchandise.
I was so impressed by the way that Erin Morgenstern must have kept every story line, every stray detail that seemed insignificant but was hardly that, straight. The scope of the novel is just so grand. I’m sure that on another reading or two I would pick up so much more than before. I also wish we got more time with certain characters because I fell in love with them entirely and quickly and before I knew it, I was done with the book and desperate to know what happened to them next.
The Starless Sea showcases the magic of storytelling, the limitless possibilities that books possess. It is the act of curling up with a good book, it is the musty warm scent of a favorite book, it is the steaming mug of coffee in book format. It is beloved and fantastic and I knew that just by cracking the pages. It is the best of writing and I am so glad that I got to read it. I’m not sure if the story lends to a sequel or a companion but I can only hope for more of Zachary and Dorian’s story. I feel like their story just began, even if I am satisfied by the way it all turned out.
I hope that if you read this review, you will happily order a copy at your bookstore or library of choice and settle in for a few hours of wondrous, awe-inspired reading. I also recommend the audio book because it is a feat of magic, the narrators transporting you so solidly in the story that you have to blink yourself awake after you listen to a section. Whichever way you choose to read it and enjoy it, you won’t regret it. And like the best games and novels, I have a feeling that no matter how many times you pick it up, you’ll be able to experience it again and again in different ways, seeking and finding as you go.