When Zachary Rawlins stumbles across a strange book hidden in his university library it leads him on a quest unlike any other. Its pages entrance him with their tales of lovelorn prisoners, lost cities and nameless acolytes, but they also contain something impossible: a recollection from his own childhood.
Determined to solve the puzzle of the book, Zachary follows the clues he finds on the cover – a bee, a key and a sword. They guide him to a masquerade ball, to a dangerous secret club, and finally through a magical doorway created by the fierce and mysterious Mirabel. The door leads to a subterranean labyrinth filled with stories, hidden far beneath the surface of the earth.
When the labyrinth is threatened, Zachary must race with Mirabel and Dorian, a handsome barefoot man with shifting alliances, through its twisting tunnels and crowded ballrooms, searching for the end of his story.
I’m kind of afraid to summarise my thoughts about The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern. For one, this book is seriously beloved in the bookish community and, well, unfortunately that was not my experience. Also, my first thought on finishing (and throughout, tbh), was: what did I just read?
I was really disappointed, because I absolutely loved The Night Circus. The way the different threads of that novel wound themselves together into a tale spinning across decades totally took my breath away. Aside from Erin’s language choices, which are as gorgeous as everyone says, what I adored about The Night Circus was the feeling that nothing was wasted – every conversation, practically every sideways glance of that novel was building toward the finale. I never wanted to put that book down because through every chapter I had the unwavering belief that the author was building something.
I suppose it might have been to the detriment of my own reading experience that I carried that belief with me into The Starless Sea.
In terms of the pure building blocks of the almost 500-page narrative, it isn’t all that different from The Night Circus, I guess. Much as it was in her debut, time is very much up for manipulation. A story about stories, as it has been endlessly described, the book is largely divided between the narrative of Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a college student in New York who is plunged into a magical world after checking out a book from the library he is stunned to discover himself a character in; and the chapters of that book, Sweet Sorrows, an ancient tome of myths about time, fate and love haunted by The Owl King who might be an owl king or might be a metaphor – to be honest I was never really sure.
This numbered one of my many frustrations.
Rather than that gradual stitching together I so loved during her debut, reading The Starless Sea, I felt I was forever grabbing for threads only to have them slip straight through my fingers. Zachary’s story had stakes – there is a group known as the Collector’s Club trying to destroy the Starless Sea forever – but the why of it all felt so hazy to me that even in its most dramatic moments I always felt apart from the action, like I was constantly playing catch up.
Ultimately I felt like The Starless Sea got so caught up in its own mythology it totally sacrificed plot. I think perhaps my confusion lay in the genre, which felt like it had one foot in the a literary world shrouded in metaphor, and the other very much grounded in that of plot-driven fantasy and the jumbled elements of both really wound up serving neither. I can read a beautiful book of metaphor with no plot and fall in love. I can ready an epic fantasy and be thrilled at every twist. Somehow though, this combination of both just didn’t work for me.
Despite my issues with the narrative, such as it was, the writing was as beautiful as ever – even if I couldn’t feel it in my bones like I wanted to. I felt throughout like I had a vague sense of what she was trying to say – that all stories are connected, that every ending is a new beginning and while that’s still sad, it’s hopeful, too – somehow none of it really meant anything to me.
The Starless Sea was one of those strange books I walked away from with a sense of failure. We’ve all had that, right? That perhaps there is this profound message somewhere in there that I just couldn’t uncover, that somehow, some way, I read it ‘wrong’.
Maybe. Or maybe it just wasn’t my type of book.
Perhaps I’ll let myself off the hook, and decide to believe in the latter.
Every ending is a new beginning after all. Now I’m finally through this book (it took me a while), I can go read something else.