The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

9/10 Rhymes that keep their secrets, will unfold behind a cloud

Erin Morgenstern's first novel, The Night Circus, had been a pretty unforgettable experience, so when my lady informed me her second book involved writing which was just as gorgeous, but exchanged the fantastical circus attractions for an exploration of stories and other worlds, my interest was definitely peaked.

Zachary Ezra Rawlins once found a beautiful door graffitied onto a wall, a door he refused to try opening for fear of discovering that it was indeed just a picture. Now at the age of twenty-five, Zachary runs across a mysterious book entitled "Sweet Sorrows" in his university library. Among the tales of possibly metaphorical pirates, a man outside of time walking amidst cities of honey and bone, and a doll's house with its own miniature universe. Zachary is shocked to find his own story, the tale of the son of the fortune teller who saw a magical door as a child which he failed to open. Sweet Sorrows also tells of the world behind the door, the world where a great and mysterious library stands upon a starless sea, a world which is now under threat. As Zachary investigates the book, he finds that his own story gets wrapped up with many others, tales of the mysterious owl king, of time and fate, of journeys of discovery and darkness, and of the man called Dorian, a man atoning for misdeeds carried out in the name of protection, a man whom Zachary comes to love.

One thing I found instantly fascinating about The Starless Sea, is that despite a truly amazing writing style, the plot almost feels familiar. Dreamy, story loving protagonist finds intriguing, otherworldly magical item, protagonist investigates item to meet mysterious person from other world who attempts to warn him/her off, only to pique his/her curiosity, protagonist gets into trouble with another force who are seeking magical object to threaten the other world, before being rescued, and then departing for the other world himself/herself, magical object in tow to insure its safety. It's an absolutely classic formula, from Susan Cooper to Michael Ende, going right back to John Masefield's The Box of Delights back in the thirties. It's also, as Clive Barker showed in Weaveworld, a great way to write an adult fantasy book. Indeed, for all that so many reviews of The Starless Sea have talked about "non linear narratives", or "experimental storytelling", one thing which really grabbed my attention right at the start was just how much like an adult adventure tale this feels. Part of this is the central character, after all I doubt I'm the only person to find an introverted post graduate with a love of computer games and stories an easy character to identify with, indeed some of the discussions Zachary has with his friends about the nature of games vs stories are very much like the discussions my lady and I have.

One other notable thing about the way the narrative is written, is that alongside the main plot concerning Zachary, we also get short poems and stories, first from Sweet Sorrows, then later from other books Zachary encounters. At first these stories seem disconnected, but slowly over time, they get woven into Zachary's experiences, with Zachary encountering characters or places mentioned in them, or one story serving as a springboard for events in another. As compared to the at times slightly random digressions in The Night Circus, which just existed to show off different phantasmagoria, the stories here do seem to run towards a major purpose, especially when Zachary starts encountering other books, or recurring symbols, such as the sword, key and bee, embodying three paths of service to the hidden library, symbols which are also replicated in other places such as the painted door Zachary found as a child.

Speaking of symbols, by far the most unique thing about The Starless Sea, is the sheer poetic brilliance of the writing style. Even when simply discussing Zachary and his university life and concerns, Morgenstern writes with an absolute delicacy, a way of highlighting images or feelings, or impressions, like accidentals in a piece of music. Whether the constant herbal smell of Zachary's fortune teller mother's house, or his liking for various crafted cocktails, never dwelling on one scene or detail too long, but picking out feelings, objects or single impressions to give each picture an extra flair, a touch of magic. Morgenstern also has a definite edge for the sheer flow, and rhythm of language, creating something that is dreamlike, smooth, and on many occasions lapses into pure poetry.

It is also in terms of symbols that motifs, ideas and different images occur like phrases in a symphony, such as the bee, sword and key, the mysterious owl king, or the way that Morgenstern speaks of stories being woven in different places, from paintings or engravings on walls, to ribbons wrapping a dancer's body at an unearthly party.

Oddly enough, it is this very poetic writing style, and this tendency to revel in the delight of language and imagery that is both The Starless Sea's major strength, and its main weakness. Though at the start of the book, Morgenstern sets up characters and intriguing mysteries that propel the pace of the plot, keeping both us, and Zachary as eager to find out about the significance of the book Sweet Sorrows, as Bastian was to learn about the titular neverending story, as soon as Zachary fully enters the fantastical world, the plot almost stops. All of the mysteries Zachary was investigating are almost entirely dropped, in favour of Zachary simply wandering along, being propelled by one beautifully ineffable; but still rather obvious authorial prod after another. The world is as gorgeous and intriguing as you could wish, a world of candles, quiet library shelves, cats and statues, where a seemingly sentient kitchen provides any desire, or a door can open on another time; and that is even before Zachary makes it to the starless sea itself. Yet, even as Zachary, Morgenstern, and the reader are simply sitting back and revelling in the beauty of the setting, Morgenstern introduces yet more characters with their own backstories to The Starless Sea, and starts setting up yet more mysteries, which she is no more eager to provide answers to than she was the previous questions. Then again, Morgenstern's prose remains so completely captivating, with the sights, sounds and smells of the hidden library always revealing something new and exotic at each turn, that the fact the plot feels rather stalled almost doesn't matter.

The lack of plot focus does however make some of the characters feel slightly shallow, particularly Zachary's love interest Dorian. Not that Dorian isn't a perfectly nice guy, and his introduction to Zachary is an incredibly sensual and even tastefully erotic one. However, what hints we get of Dorian's past, as an assassin who suffered a change of heart, indicate there should be way more going on beneath the niceness, and suggest a far more redemptive journey than the one we got. In general, it’s incredibly disappointing how little time Zachary and Dorian spend together, or how disconnected they feel, for all they spend most of the book longing for each other; with a beautifully described longing at that, especially compared to a very sweet and quirky romance Morgenstern shows elsewhere in the text. Indeed, one reason why Zachary and Dorian's romance feels slightly frustrating, is how effortlessly Morgenstern creates an instant friendship, which leads to a real loving connection between two other characters, whom we see far less of.

Much of the time, Morgenstern seemed far better at setting up mysteries, or showing the convoluted way new characters enter the narrative and connect to existing characters, than actually giving any kind of resolution to the story in the present. This goes as far as having the book's villain, someone who'd apparently engaged in murder and torture, headed her own multinational organisation, and even given Zachary a Bond villain style threat, literally falling out of the narrative halfway through, and her evil organisation; an organisation we learn very little about, just packing up and going home. This is particularly egregious when we see the catastrophically nasty effect she's had on one character, an effect that is noted but again, not explained at all, since while Morgenstern certainly does tell us who this villain is and where she came from, why she acts as she does, or even what most of her actions related to characters outside her introduction are are simply not explained.

And yet, for all the unanswered questions, there was always a host of delightful descriptions, captivating images, and even occasions where motifs and ideas could quietly slip into the story, and interact with the characters directly, blending style and events together in a way which was simply breath-taking. For instance, when we hear a sweetly tragic romantic tale of the moon's romance with a lonely innkeeper, I never expected to meet the innkeeper, and yes, even the moon herself in course of the narrative, for all that this meeting occurs when one character is on an unexplained journey which ultimately goes nowhere, to confront a foreshadowed apocalyptic plot point, which literally never appears.

On the one hand, at eighteen hours, the book definitely started to out stay its welcome, especially when its final part seemed to be literally aimless, accept for the introduction of yet another; admittedly very likable, character into the fantasy world, at the point when I was wanting resolution of the stories of the characters already there. On the other hand, so many images recurred satisfyingly, and even though certain parts of the plot felt unresolved, or at least unexplained, some did come to a conclusion, and even though that conclusion felt more that it happened simply "because", than for any articulate reason, I can't deny that some aspects of the conclusion worked amazingly well. In particular, I loved the way that the heart, crown and feather symbols, which you'd seen occasionally throughout the story as a counterpoint to the key, sword and bee, came into play at the end, and what those symbols said about the characters they were associated with.

People say great art is always controversial, and that's absolutely true of The Starless Sea. In all the reviews I've seen, there are two, almost diametrically opposed schools of thought, those who simply revel in the poetry, love the symbology and don't need explanations or continuance of plot, and those who find the book ponderous and unspecific, and bemoan the lack of coherence or resolution. Myself, I'm actually torn between both sides, since quite honestly, I found The Starless Sea a slightly exasperating experience. The initial setup for the plot is a genuinely fascinating one, (more so than The Night Circus), with really likable characters journeying to mysterious and ineffable places, some sensual and emotional matters of connection, and some absolutely amazing questions asked, and yet so much feels unresolved, or even down right contrived, with many plot threads simply ignored or snipped off prematurely. But, what we get is so astoundingly, soul achingly lovely, so full of amazing images, thoughts, symbols, stories and glittering, tantalising impressions, that criticising it for such earthy, pragmatic matters as structure and plot resolution, or crying out for answers to mysteries that plainly Morgenstern wished to leave simply as artistic mysteries, makes me feel like a heel! After all, as Robin Williams reminds us in Dead Poets Society, the beauty and art of writing cannot be simply plotted on a graph, or subjected to crass, mechanistic formulae.

One thing I can say is that, possibly even to a greater extent than Morgenstern's first novel, this is one book which is absolutely unique! Certainly, anyone who really wants to test the limits of what is possible in speculative fiction, and journey into truly strange and wondrous places , should definitely take a voyage on The Starless Sea.

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