By Ekta R. Garg
February 6, 2020
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
Release date: November 5, 2019
Rated: Bypass it / 2 stars (unless you want to read a book lush with good prose for the sake of the beauty of the words; then this book should receive 100 stars.)
Oh, Erin. Oh my goodness, Erin. From The Night Circus to this?
When The Night Circus first came out, I didn’t read it. My kids were young at the time, and I hadn’t entrenched myself yet in the world of publishing and pub trends. I heard about the book on NPR, and the person gushed about it on the radio.
Then, four years ago, I did read it, and for the first time since discovering Narnia, I wished with every molecule inside of me that the Night Circus was a real place. I reread the book and wished even more. My writer’s brain started toying with an idea or two of my own, and I wrote a manuscript that is a fairy tale. I’m prepping my own novel now for representation and, hopefully, publication.
All because of Erin Morgenstern.
Like thousands of other fans, I waited with a great deal of impatience for her next novel and was practically screaming on Facebook when I found out about The Starless Sea. I pre-ordered my copy ten months before it released.
Then I read it, and all of the excitement deflated like a sad balloon that’s been lying in the corner of a room weeks after the party.
If I had not read The Night Circus and been so enthralled by it, I would have easily given The Starless Sea it’s two pathetic little stars and been on my way. I have an emotional attachment to The Night Circus, though, so that makes my feelings on The Starless Sea a little more complicated. It’s like when Michelle Kwan won her nine U.S. figure skating championships but then got the bronze medal at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake.
After finishing the book, I spent a lot of time thinking about how I would approach it as a reviewer if I didn’t know anything about Erin Morgenstern before picking up The Starless Sea.
Were someone to ask me to look at the book with total objectivity, I would tell them that it lacked a basic story. Those who read my reviews regularly know that I begin with a synopsis of the book and then share my observations on it. For The Starless Sea, however, I think I’d struggle to come up with a synopsis. In the opening pages, we meet a pirate in captivity and a girl tasked with…actually, I don’t know what her original function was. When we see them in their fantastical world, the pirate already seems doomed to die. Nevertheless, the two fall in love.
Then the story cuts to a college student named Zachary Ezra Rawlins. When he was a child, Zachary (always Zachary, never Zach) had a strange experience. He came upon a painted door on a wall one day and had the urge to reach for the knob to see if he could open the door. He didn’t follow through on this urge, but years later at the university he comes across a book in the campus library that describes this scene. He’s determined to find out who wrote the book and how they knew about what happened to him as a kid.
The next 445 pages follow Zachary around (and Morgenstern insists on calling him by his full name at the start of every single chapter that includes him throughout the book) as he meets some interesting people, visits a world beneath the depths of the earth, and reaches the Starless Sea.
Actually, written out like that, I would have probably wavered between 1.5 stars and 2. Morgenstern’s prose, her descriptions, her dedication to her story world are so crisp and clear, they feel like the first sharp wind of winter in your lungs. Few people may understand why she’s building this world, but everyone will know what she’s showing you even if you keep struggling to ask the first question and keep getting hushed by the second.
There’s a love interest, but Zachary doesn’t spend enough time with that person for readers to accept it as a legitimate romantic relationship. There’s a secret society, but other than using ribbons to hang doorknobs from the ceiling of their creepy headquarters they don’t seem to actually do much. The Starless Sea itself is a place that only a select few can reach, but it’s unclear what the purpose of the sea is. Zachary visits a hall adjacent to the sea with thousands upon thousands of books, guarded by their own secret society (yes, there are more than one in the novel,) but why that society is guarding the books is beyond anyone’s comprehension.
As a reviewer, I appreciate her lush writing. Early in the book, in the opening paragraphs of a short story (yes, there’s an independent short story—several, actually—within this novel,) she’s describing a girl. Morgenstern writes, “She is young enough to carry fear with her without letting it into her heart. Without being scared. She wears her fear lightly, like a veil, aware that there are dangers but letting the crackling awareness hover around her.”
Beautiful writing, though, isn’t enough to keep a book afloat. This is one of those novels that is so gorgeous, I almost ducked my head in deference every time I picked it up even as I resisted the urge to ask, “But what’s the point?” Then I would wonder if I was so dense I was missing it.
I’m not the only reviewer who’s felt like this. Here’s one of the most comprehensive, well-thought-out analyses of the book by Goodreads reviewer Lisa Lynch.
In the end, The Starless Sea is one of those books that most people will (and do) say, “It had so much potential, but…”. Some reviewers have gone so far as to say that The Starless Sea will ride on the long coattails of success of The Night Circus, and I can see the validity of that argument. At the end, as a book reviewer myself, I couldn’t help just shake my head at the nearly 500 pages I spent going in circles.
The description of the book is best offered by the novel itself. About halfway through, Zachary comments that everything he’s encountered seems like a puzzle. This is the passage that follows:
“What kind of puzzles?” Dorian asks.
“Ever since I got here it’s been all notes and clues and mysteries. First there was the Queen of Bees but she just led me to a hidden crypt filled with memory-wrapped dead people where my cat abandoned me and a book told me that there were three things lost in time. Please don’t look at me like that.”
“A book told you?”
“It fell apart in little instructional pieces but I don’t know what it means and I was surrounded by corpses so I didn’t particularly want to stick around to figure it out and the book was gone anyway. Also, there was a ghost in the hall after that. I think. Maybe.”
If you’re worried that this section is filled with spoilers, it isn’t. It answers the question of how those of us who love The Night Circus feel about The Starless Sea. It’s full of puzzles and instructional pieces that fall apart. Maybe.