The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
Published by Doubleday Books
Publication date: November 5, 2019
Genres: Book Clubs, Fantasy, Fiction, Literary
If you know me at all you know I’m seldom at a loss for words. But when an author uses all the best words in their novel, the way Erin Morgenstern did in The Starless Sea, what’s left for someone trying to write about it? I have such tender feelings for this book I’m almost afraid to review it. Not that my paltry review is going to change its destiny, just that I won’t be able to do it justice. I was that drawn into this gorgeous and mesmerizing tale.
The Starless Sea is the story of Zachary, a graduate student in Emerging Media Studies (something to do with gender and narrative in gaming). His straightforward life flips when he finds a book in his school’s library that has a chapter in it about him when he was a young boy. This book, and three symbols within it—a bee, a sword, and a key—lead Zachary on an odyssey that spans an entire world hidden underneath the earth’s surface. It takes him to a Harbor on the starless sea, to forests, mountains, and expanses of snow as far as the eye can see. When night falls it is complete because there can be no stars. He comes to realize his book is a piece in a vast puzzle he doesn’t understand. Also, that there are good and not-so-good people working to find it. Two of the most important are Mirabel, a seemingly indestructible pink-haired woman who appears and disappears when least expected and Dorian, a handsome man, who no matter where they meet, is barefoot.
The nexus of this new world is the Harbor, a place behind a door painted on a rock in Central Park. It is every readers’ dream: an unending world of books.
Some will find a door and open it and pass through to see where it leads. Once there they will wander through the stone halls, finding things to look at and things to touch and things to read. They find stories tucked in hidden corners and laid out on tables, as though they had been there always, waiting for their reader to arrive.
This, plus that fact, that the Harbor is run like a hotel, with sumptuous rooms, clothes that fit perfectly, and food of any type that appears when requested, means I was on Expedia trying to buy a ticket as soon as I read Morgenstern’s tantalizing descriptions.
But it’s not all luxury and lounging around reading. The Starless Sea is an epic adventure story. Populated with, amongst other things: a pirate, a stag, an innkeeper, a princess, a giant rabbit, a sword, a doll’s house, an owl king, bees, and a vast underground world where time shifts and slides. It is capital g Grand. This is a book that embraces fables, myths, and fairy tales to explore universal themes like Seeking and Finding. And Time and Fate. Early on when Zachary asks Mirabel where they are, her answer is the perfect one to anyone thinking about reading this novel:
“This is the rabbit hole. Do you want to know the secret to surviving once you’ve gone down the rabbit hole?”
Zachary nods and Mirabel leans forward.
“Be the rabbit,” she whispers.
Which is key. If you’re a reader who likes their reading grounded in reality, prefers a linear timeline, or wants a clear-cut progression with questions quickly answered, then The Starless Sea is going to make you crazy. If you loved The Princess Bride, Willy Wonka, or the movie Stardust, or any entertainment that allows you to suspend disbelief, then it will be a charming delight.
Morgenstern flexes her creative muscle with contemporary references and sly humor throughout the novel. In the midst of dramatic scenes there are musing and asides on utterly mundane topics, like Zachary wondering how the woman who may be about to torture him ties such a perfect knot in her necktie. In this way she ensures her human characters are not overshadowed by the novel’s plot. The Starless Sea has real people with relatable emotions and motivations. It all comes to life in Morgenstern’s extraordinary prose and attention to detail. Through her words I was transported away from the everyday and the negative to a place that astonished and enchanted me at every turn.
So, it seems I do have plenty of words about The Starless Sea, but they still feel inadequate. I’m in awe and in love with this novel and it is very likely to be my favorite of 2019. I don’t know the last time a book so completely captured my imagination, making me feel a child’s wonder again. I want a sequel, a movie, a Netflix series…anything to keep it going. This book is a true gift to anyone who loves words and that’s its essence—the enduring beauty and importance of stories.