Erin Morgenstern’s new novel The Starless Sea is a beautifully wrought and many-layered tale; a riveting, rollicking, and complex quest for the very heart of story. For those who loved the magical depths and wondrous spaces of Morgenstern’s debut The Night Circus (2011), there is much here in her second novel to entertain and enthrall. The novel is a series of interwoven narratives, each feeding the other and together creating a sometimes frustrating, but often engrossing epic narrative focused on love, magic, and the essential importance of stories to human survival. We are our stories and The Starless Sea is a glorious attempt at reminding us of this.
The novel’s central story begins with a young boy who makes a choice not to open a door that may or may not be there and with this choice, his life branches away from a destined path. Later this same boy—Zachary Ezra Rawlins—discovers an authorless book in the library stacks at his unnamed university in Vermont where he is a graduate student focusing on the study of video games. This mysterious book, Sweet Sorrows, features a series of narratives that leads him on a quest for knowledge—the palpable draw of the book and how it quickly takes over his life is partly a metaphor for the way stories and books can become as important as lovers to some of us, and partly a guide to what lies behind the door he once refused to open. The first excerpt we read from "Sweet Sorrows" starts, "Far beneath the surface of the earth, hidden from the sun and the moon, upon the shores of the Starless Sea, there is a labyrinthine collection of tunnels and rooms filled with stories." How can we not be drawn in? One of the stories in Sweet Sorrows centers on “the son of the fortune teller”—Zachary is drawn in when he realizes this story is his own secret story of the mysterious door and the path he did not take. As he attempts to track the origin of Sweet Sorrows, he finds a record online of a literary event linked to this mysterious book and held at the famed Algonquin Hotel—an annual event that just happens to be taking place in a few days’ time. Drawn by the desire to solve the mystery behind Sweet Sorrows and a series of symbols he’s discovered (a key, a bee, a sword), Zachary finds himself at the Algonquin where he dances with a mysterious woman dressed as Max from Where the Wild Things Are (1963) and later has a highly charged and intimate encounter in a dark room with an unseen man who whispers a story in his ear. From this single party, Zachary experiences a series of events that bring him into a parallel world where stories are true and treasured, and kept behind fought-over doors that lead to a world beneath ours: a world of libraries and ballrooms, of archives and mysteries, of paintings of mythic creatures all held in Harbors on the shores of the Starless Sea.
Zachary becomes completely engrossed in the underground world, finds love only to lose it, and disappears from his above-ground life without a trace. He has no family other than his mother, “Madame Love” Rawlins, a fortune-teller who seems relatively unconcerned about her son’s fate in the few pages she is given in the novel, appearing in conversation with her son’s only college friend—the potentially interesting Kat. And here lies one of the weaknesses in the novel—Kat is given a stilted overly juvenile voice and appears only at the beginning (in scenes with Zachary) and the end of the novel in excerpts from her “Secret Diary.” Both Madame Love Rawlins and Kat deserve more.
The bulk of the novel takes place in the underground world where Zachary searches for his lost love, known only to him as “Dorian,” as a way through to the heart of his own story, and a glimpse of the Starless Sea. In this world of stories come to life, of endless archives held in thrall to an order that seeks to shelter them from an already written fate, Zachary encounters the Moon embodied, a pair of “time-crossed” lovers, and the shadows and ghosts of stories that were and are no longer. There are myriad references here to other epic novels and at times these can be a distraction—obvious nods to Lev Grossman’s Magicians series, Lewis Carroll’s Alice adventures (rabbits leading to endless falls through darkness into magic, potions one really shouldn’t drink), gestures toward Kelly Link, Neil Gaiman, and J.K. Rowling, and characters named for Kat Howard and Simon Toyne. There are also distinct elements of the Choose Your Own Adventure series where every door or path a character takes changes the plot. And then there are the various symbols: the key, the bee(s), the sword, the book, the feather; symbols worn by characters (as pendants or burned into their skin) or carved into doors. Some symbols seem to signify characters, organizations, paths to be taken, while others lack the power of meaning needed in a labyrinthine epic, instead appearing more like clues in a video game: existing only to further the player’s movement through the game and not as rife with meaning as a reader might want them to be.
While it’s easy for a reader to get lost in these 500 plus pages—the interwoven narratives, the excerpts and snippets of stories and diaries lost and found, and the various lovers and time shifts, the recurring themes—at the end of the novel, the threads do coalesce for most of the characters and their various stories. Pay attention to these smaller stories within the story, here there are puzzles and clues and misdirection and paths to the world above and down to the shores of the Starless Sea. It’s also easy to get lost in the richness of atmosphere: the scents, the shimmering sights of gold flake and shadowed reading rooms, of a “kitchen” that can provide anything the visitor desires, apparitions of opulent parties in long-abandoned ballrooms, a field of cherry trees blooming in snow, a stag with flaming candles on his antlers, and everywhere: books and bees and owls.
There are characters who may or may not be central figures in the snippets of stories we read in the course of the novel. There is a “Keeper” with pearls woven into his long, grey braids for every year he has guarded his Harbor; there is a woman who may be Fate or the Moon or simply a pink-haired powerhouse who calls herself Mirabel. There is a woman known as Allegra and “the Painter” who traded an eye for true vision—a vision that leads to torture and murder and the burning of books. There is a woman known as “Rhyme” who gave her tongue to serve the Library and its stories. There is Simon who long ago lost his true love and walked too far down into the depths in search of her; there is the woman known as “Eleanor” who steers a boat through the lower depths and may or may not be Simon’s true love. And at the center of it all is Zachary Ezra Rawlins—a character whose queerness is central to the narrative but also just a part of the magic of who he is and who he will become when his story comes to an end.
This glorious novel is a reminder of the importance of story, and while there are disappointments—the female characters are given less space than the male (unlike the balance in The Night Circus), sometimes the novel slips away from story and into video game pastiche, and there are minor errors (no self-respecting university library uses the Dewey Decimal System)—still it is a highly rewarding read. As I finished the novel, I found myself envious of everyone who will get this book as a holiday gift, remembering how I used to love that stack of books that appeared at the holidays—the excitement and the desire to open a new book and be swallowed whole by story. And that’s what Morgenstern accomplishes with this novel—a reawakening of the desire to be engulfed by story and a reminder as to how story shapes who we are, how we love, and how we live in the world.