A mysterious book, discovered in the depths of the university library, sets Zachary Rawlins on a bewildering adventure. Swept up by forces beyond his understanding, he finds himself in an underground labyrinth filled with stories, inhabited by only the taciturn Keeper. But this shrine to storytelling is under threat, and Zachary will have to work with Mirabel (a pink-haired girl with a sphynx’s smile who can paint magical doors into existence) and Dorian (a handsome man with shifting alliances and a preference for going barefoot) to search for the story’s end.
The Starless Sea, by Erin Morgenstern, has a pervasive dream-like quality to it. It reminded me of why it’s so important, when you’re telling other people about your dreams, to keep it short. Or just not go there in the first place. Dreams, for a range of reasons illustrated pretty clearly in The Starless Sea, don’t tend to make very good stories.
I was skeptical of The Starless Sea from quite early on, I’ll admit, when it began with three chapters in quick succession which bore no obvious connection to each other and gave no hint of a story emerging. I can appreciate a well-crafted prologue, or a collection of short stories, but I started to feel a little impatient when I was promised a story and was met with a collection of apparently unrelated vignettes. At last, sixteen pages in, we were being introduced to Zachary Rawlins, our main character, and the plot tentatively began to unfold. Sort of.
These mini-stories continued to pop up, and when it became apparent early on that they are coming from the strange book Zachary has picked up from his university library I warmed to them a little. I’m a fan of the book-within-a-book thing, and I was prepared to forgive the off-putting beginning when I realised that was what it was doing—but the frequency doesn’t really let-up, and it started to annoy me again after a while. This is probably personal preference, but I don’t like to be constantly pulled away from the main plot without extremely good reason, and I never felt like these asides managed to justify their existence. That’s not to say they weren’t reasonably interesting in their own right, they were vivid and intricate little stories, but I didn’t feel like they had a point and so I didn’t want to spend time reading them when there was actual plot to get back to. Again, sort of.
The characters, I enjoyed. Zachary is a little reactive (a pet peeve of mine when it comes to main characters, as you’re probably aware if you’ve read some of my other reviews), but he’s prepared to step up and take action at key moments and I definitely empathised with his uncertainty over what was going on throughout the majority of the story. He’s a sweet character and, although the third-person present tense narration keeps us at a bit of a remove from him, you get a real sense of his basic goodness, along with a thoughtful sense of humour and a collection of video game references that I appreciated. Mirabel is an entertaining character as well, and probably the one we spend the second greatest amount of time with; fun and fierce and clearly on a mission. Although it’s not apparent what exactly Mirabel is up to most of the time, we’re not left in any doubt that she has a lot going on behind the scenes. She has a tendency to disappear for stretches of time, showing back up only when she’s needed, and I frequently wished she would share more information than she did, but that issue was so embedded into the book as a whole that I couldn’t hold her reticence against her.
Dorian, the handsome stranger who initially wins Zachary over with his storytelling abilities, is harder to pin down. His history and change of sides get a sprinkling of mentions, but they weren’t explained in as much detail as I’d been hoping for. He’s obviously a character carrying some baggage, but he gets some nice scenes over the course of the book. I thought the romance that sparked between him and Zachary was very sweet, although I wish it had been given a little more space to blossom in the plot. It’s not like there wasn’t space made for all manner of less relevant moments.
There were other things that I really liked about this book. Morgenstern’s writing is evocative and flowing, with flashes of unexpected humour. The settings and environments were beautifully described, and there was a strong sense of intrigue created around the Starless Sea and the people who lived there. There were descriptions of rituals for people taking on different roles (that of acolyte, keeper or guardian) which were pretty compelling, and I guess you could make the argument that “it’s interesting” is enough justification to have something in a book, but I kept coming back to the frustration that those sections didn’t seem to go anywhere or have any ongoing relevance to the story ostensibly being told.
This is part of what I mean about the dream-like experience of reading The Starless Sea. I finished it with a sense that there were a lot of vivid images, places and characters, and I know that something happened. Or several somethings. There were events, some of which built on events that had come before, which played out in an order of sorts and felt like they were meant to be significant. Almost never did I have a strong sense of where the story was going, or why things were happening. Much like dreaming, I accepted most of it at face-value while reading, but whenever I put the book down and tried to work out where the story might be going, I found myself drawing a blank.
Now, was my confusion about the purpose of events and character motivations meant to mimic Zachary’s confusion as he attempted to navigate a mysterious subterranean sanctuary and the different (although all equally reluctant to answer questions) forces at play there? Probably, yes. Did that make it less irritating? Not for me. In order to avoid spoilers, I won’t be talking about any specifics from the latter part of the novel, but I never felt like the plot really crystallised into a clear problem to be overcome or conflict to be resolved. Everything Zachary did, he seemed to be reacting to outside forces and instructions that he (and therefore I) didn’t really understand. It made it difficult to feel really invested in the outcomes, or to appreciate what might be at stake at any given moment.
I also took issue with the use (or lack thereof) of some of the specific story elements that showed up over and over again. Recurring elements should, at least in my opinion, build to something important in a story, but in The Starless Sea there were a number of ideas or minor characters which felt like they were referenced over and over without ever becoming more than a passing reference. Again, to avoid spoilers, I’m not going to get more specific than that. Like a recurring dream, the very fact that I kept seeing them made them feel important, but when I looked back on the story after turning the final page I realised some of them could be removed entirely from the book without having the slightest impact on the outcome. This wasn’t always the case; there were some threads introduced in the chapter breaks which kept being woven back in and did eventually lead to a vaguely satisfying resolution in amongst the rest of the plot, but I don’t think “some” is good enough when you’re asking a reader to keep track of so many different plot-lines and motifs.
I remember reading Morgenstern’s previous book, The Night Circus, and feeling similarly. Lots to like about the writing, characters and setting, but the plot felt kind of all over the place, the central conflict poorly defined and the resolution a little vague and unsatisfying as a result. I don’t think that The Starless Sea being so much longer than The Night Circus has done it any favours; it just gives the story longer to meander aimlessly and tie itself in knots. I know there are a lot of people who would argue vehemently with me on this. I’ve seen some passionately positive reviews of both The Night Circus and The Starless Sea, and I can definitely see some of what people think is great about it, but ultimately I didn’t feel like the concept (which admittedly I loved) was done justice by a story that seemed to lack a sense of direction, no matter how pretty the writing was.
I’m glad I read The Starless Sea, and—as much as it might not sound like it—I quite enjoyed at least some of it. I think a lot of my irritation has come from the fact that, with such an imaginative world and characters that positively sparkled, it could have been a truly phenomenal story. If only it had worked out what story it was telling, or deigned to share that story with me at any point. If you loved The Night Circus, or are happy to wander through a vivid (if baffling) dreamscape of a novel, The Starless Sea will probably be right up your street. If you like your stories with a strong plot, or at least a clear sense of what’s going on at any given moment, you might find it a little more frustrating.
Did you find this book as confusing as I did? If not, maybe you can explain to me what was going on! I’d love to hear (/read) what you thought in the comments.
his is my Review of the Month for the review collection on LovelyAudiobooks.info