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Book Review: The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern (4/5)

11 May

I added this to my TBR after it was released because I loved The Night Circus so much. My Reading Buddy and I were looking for our next book to read together and I compiled a shortlist of books I wanted to read and let her choose from it. Thankfully, she chose this title and I couldn’t wait to dig in. I ordered us both copies and put sticky notes at stopping points about every 100 pages which were five sections. I’m a fast reader and she takes her time but we were always able to meet and talk about the book after each section. Somethings she understood, some I understood. Together, I think we got a lot more out of this book than we would have individually. I bet we do one of these again.

Cover image via Goodreads

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

Summary from Goodreads:

Far beneath the surface of the earth, upon the shores of the Starless Sea, there is a labyrinthine collection of tunnels and rooms filled with stories. The entryways that lead to this sanctuary are often hidden, sometimes on forest floors, sometimes in private homes, sometimes in plain sight. But those who seek will find. Their doors have been waiting for them.

Zachary Ezra Rawlins is searching for his door, though he does not know it. He follows a silent siren song, an inexplicable knowledge that he is meant for another place. When he discovers a mysterious book in the stacks of his campus library he begins to read, entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, lost cities, and nameless acolytes. Suddenly a turn of the page brings Zachary to a story from his own childhood impossibly written in this book that is older than he is.

A bee, a key, and a sword emblazoned on the book lead Zachary to two people who will change the course of his life: Mirabel, a fierce, pink-haired painter, and Dorian, a handsome, barefoot man with shifting alliances. These strangers guide Zachary through masquerade party dances and whispered back room stories to the headquarters of a secret society where doorknobs hang from ribbons, and finally through a door conjured from paint to the place he has always yearned for. Amid twisting tunnels filled with books, gilded ballrooms, and wine-dark shores Zachary falls into an intoxicating world soaked in romance and mystery. But a battle is raging over the fate of this place and though there are those who would willingly sacrifice everything to protect it, there are just as many intent on its destruction. As Zachary, Mirabel, and Dorian venture deeper into the space and its histories and myths, searching for answers and each other, a timeless love story unspools, casting a spell of pirates, painters, lovers, liars, and ships that sail upon a Starless Sea.

OK, I’ll say it. This book was a little too much. There were a lot of layers and subplots and characters that kept me guessing but that also felt extra and unresolved in the end. And this was a book where you really had to think, which isn’t what I was ready for. I found myself flipping back 100+ pages often to reference something and often thinking, “That seems familiar” and not knowing where to look for another appearance. Some things were unclear and I felt like I missed something important. This is especially true in the end, the last 60 pages. By then, I was so close to the end and kind of anxious for it to be over so I didn’t bother to go back and look very often.

Zachary, Dorian, and Kat felt real. Since they’re the only major characters who are from our ‘universe,’ it didn’t bother me that most of the other people felt like a stretch. They weren’t supposed to feel real. Zachary’s head is the one we get into the most and he felt the most fleshed out because of it. The things he did made sense and I often found myself making connections that he would make one or two paragraphs later. Dorian confused me a bit because I was unsure how old he was and a lot of his backstory isn’t told well. He states at one point that Allegra raised him, but nothing else is said about this. Kat comes into play more at the end and her fate is a little unclear to me which was frustrating but I do like imagining what it entailed.

Zachary was my favorite character. I connected with him immediately and his love for books was something I related to. My senior year of college was the first time I was taking less than 15 credits and I rewarded myself by getting a library card for the local system and reading fiction again. The ways he reacted to what happened to him were logical and he never made a jump that I couldn’t understand or relate to.

Many of the characters were so shrouded in mystery that they were hard to connect to. Maribel is a perfect example. You think you understand her a bit and have a guess at where she came from, but the story of Simon & Eleanor makes it nearly impossible to think she’s normal anymore, and then she starts getting more and more far fetched.

Erin Morgenstern
Image via Goodreads

Zachary’s initial investigation of the Harbor was my favorite part. Everything is so new and magical that you can’t help falling in love and feeling the same sense of wonder that Zachary is overwhelmed with. It’s wonderfully drawn and the picture in my head was amazing. It’s like the library that I’m sure most bibliophiles wish they could live in.

The end was a bit much for me. From when the Heart fractures to the end. I felt like there was too much to wrap up from there with how many pages were left and I don’t think I’m satisfied with how the book ended and the story we get for many of the characters. For some, I wanted more. For some, less. It felt like a bit of a left turn at the last minute. I’m not sure how I would have ended it, though.

The book deals a lot with fate and changing what you’re fated to do, but I’m not sure we get a strong sense that Zachary was able to change his fate. From what I can figure, he was a pawn used to change someone else’s fate. I think it would have been more telling to know what Allegra foresaw because it’s unclear how much changed from what she saw and how much stayed the same. I get the impression something changed but it’s unclear what and how much of an impact that made.

Writer’s Takeaway: Morgenstern’s ability to create magic is amazing. For the second time, I’m wrapped up in her world and what she’s imagined and I’m not sure I entirely want to leave. Combining the nerd-fantasy elements of our world with the magic of the Starless Sea was great and making me feel like I could end up there somehow; like there was a door waiting for me to open it.

A great ride but a little flat at the end. Four out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

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