I read Morgenstern’s first novel, The Night Circus, like 10 years ago (OMG time goes so fast!). Anyways, I freaking loved it. And, after joining bookstagram a few years ago, I realized that basically everyone else felt the same way. It’s one of the most universally, positively-reviewed, posted-about backlist books. So of course I, like everyone else, did a legitimate happy dance when I saw that she had another book coming out. Plus, the title and cover are just stunning. The whole thing equaled me buying a copy as soon as I could. And I can now, finally, say that I’ve read it!
“She wove narratives of what would happen, what might happen, what had already happened, and what could never happen and blurred them all together.”
The Starless Sea is about Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a sort of nerdy, reader, gamer-type college student who falls into (or more like, walks through a door into) another world after finding a mysterious book in his university library that is about himself. A series of clues about bees and keys and swords, along with an impromptu trip to a book-themed masquerade ball, lead Zachary to this other place, full of books and stories and magic…and owl kings and the moon and pirates and lovers and story guardians and, of course, the Starless Sea. He ends up teaming up with Mirabal, a pink-haired protector of this other world, and Dorian, an attractive but mysterious sort of ally, to unravel mysteries of time and fate and find his own place in both the story and in his own life.
Well, the first and primary world that comes to mind to describe this novel is beguiling. This book is the word version of a very attractive but hard to pin down secret crush. Like, the kind that leaves a particular scent behind when they sweep past and don’t notice you, that just stays with you and makes it so you cannot forget them and any time you smell that scent elsewhere, you are immediately brought back to the moment you saw them first. Anyways, the point is, the highlight (far and away) of this novel as the atmosphere, the aura, the vibe, it gave off. I may forget things about the characters and plot (like, a lot of things, but we’ll get to that), but I will always remember the completely enveloped way I felt while reading it. The writing is soft and enchanting, and there is such a comforting celebration of stories and gaming and other “nerdy” things. And the way those references and respect is consistent and proliferous throughout will appeal to many a wishful, geeky soul. I also have to say that there is a pretty similar appeal to this book and This Is How You Lose the Time War (one of my favorite books of the year), in the creative and sometimes just out of reach (from a comprehension perspective) ways stories are told and transmitted (in this case, through mints/candy, on scraps of folded paper and ribbons, in decks of cards, in the bubbles of sparkling wine, and more) – and again, like in Time War, that aspect was just so fun and intriguing to me. Also, side note, I listened to the audiobook as well as reading the physical version, and oh my goodness – the full cast narration was spectacular.
I have to say though, I was a little disappointed by a few things. First, the absolute wonderfulness of the atmosphere, and the clear attention paid to that, sort of came at the expense of the characters. I felt like they all seemed a bit flat. Like, the plot was sort of meandering and nonlinear, and between that and the indistinctness (and many metaphorical-nesses) of the characters, I often sort of lost track of who was who and what their individual stories/connections were. A bit less so with Zachary, as our MC, but the rest for sure. They just felt distant to me, even after almost 500 pages with them. The other thing is that I almost felt like Morganstern tried a little too hard with the fantasy elements? Like, there were too many symbols (bees, keys, swords, crowns, hearts, feathers, doors, honey) and metaphors (the moon, fate, time) and random pieces (owl kings, romance-ish, a conflict between protecting vs hiding the secret world, and twisty machinations) that I just got a little overwhelmed. I like them all individually and in general, but I feel like narrowing down the focus within this one novel might have helped clarify things a bit.
Overall, I would truly describe The Starless Sea as story-weaving (or sculpting, as they would say in the book) at its finest. There were so many threads and pieces twisted and developed together, through time and space and worlds, and if you are a reader that likes to get lost (almost literally) in a story, for whom the setting is of paramount importance, who can move past the details and get into the aura of a book, who loves the essence of a story, this is one I would completely recommend. And for those who are on the fence, I would still say to go for it. It was truly ethereal, mystical, otherworldly and magical AF. There were definitely some aspects that I would have preferred differently as far as execution, but the writing itself was impeccable and I was overall pleased with the time I spent in these pages.
Some examples of the aforementioned writing:
“A boy at the beginning of a story has no way of knowing that the story has begun.”
“We are all stardust and stories.”
“A story is like an egg, a universe contained in its chosen medium. The spark of something new and different but fully formed and fragile. In need of protection. You want to protect it, too, but there’s more to it than that. You want to be inside it, I can see it in your eyes. I used to seek out people like you, I am practiced at spotting the desire for it. You want to be in the story, not observing it from the outside. You want to be under its shell. The only way to do that is to break it. But if it breaks, it is gone.”
“But the world is strange and endings are not truly endings no matter how the stars might wish it so.”
“It is easier to be in love in a room with closed doors. To have the whole world in one room. In one person. The universe condensed and intensified and burning, bright and alive and electric. But doors cannot stay closed forever.”
“Maybe all moments have meaning. Somewhere.”
“What’s the difference between a door and a cage? Between not yet and too late?”
“I think people came here for the same reason we came here […] 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. […] To Seeking. […] To Finding.”
“a paper star that has been unfolded and refolded / into a tiny unicorn but the unicorn remembers the time / when it was a star and an earlier time when it was part of / a book and sometimes the unicorn dreams of the time before / it was a book when it was a tree and the time even longer / before that when it was a different sort of star”
“Change is what story is…”
“A book is made of paper but a story is a tree.”
“And no story ever truly ends as long as it is told.”