Review: The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

Rating: 5/5

Genre: Speculative Fiction

QUILTBAG Main Character: Yes!

QUILTBAG Minor Character: Yes!

POC Main Character: Yes!

Bechdel Test: Pass

Summary: Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a child the day he finds the door. It is painted on a wall outside his home. He knows, somehow, if he tries to, he can open it despite the fact that it’s painted over brick. He decides not to risk it. Years later, Zachary Ezra Rawlins is at his university library. He plucks a strange book off the shelves and begins to read. As he does so, he finds the story of the painted door and his own discovery of it. This book will lead him down a path into a world of magic and wonder, of bees and keys and swords, of adventure and daring, and most of all, stories.

Let’s Get A Little Deep:

When I say that I love Erin Morgenstern, I don’t think people fully understand the depths of my love. I have read The Night Circus nine or ten times. I have often quoted it as being one of if not my all-time favorite book. I loved it so much, I themed my wedding after it. (Yes, I had a book themed wedding. No one is shocked by this.)

When Morgenstern announced that she was coming out with a new book in 2019, I think it is safe to say that I lost my entire mind. I talked about it with every single person I could. I begged people to preorder it so that we could all binge read it together. I even managed to get an Advanced Reader Copy for myself and one of my best friends. 

But I confess I was afraid. The Night Circus was my everything. Would The Starless Sea enter my heart the way it had? Or had my tastes changed enough that this new novel wouldn’t pack the same punch?

I needn’t have feared. The Starless Sea is easily the best book I read in 2019 and may be my favorite book of all time. Why? I’m so glad you asked.

The Starless Sea is, at its heart, a story for and about people who love stories. It is a deeply complicated tale that asks you to balance plates on what at first feels like a precarious ledge but, as it turns out, the ledge is solid brick. Each layer the reader peels away reveals a rich, intertwining tapestry.

What makes this novel work is that, much like The Night Circus, it isn’t just about a single thing. It is a love story, but it is not just a love story. It is an adventure novel but the adventure is equal parts emotion as it is action. It is poetic and lyrical yet the plot is so solidly built.

When I talk about going deep into a book, I normally will go on about one specific aspect of the book. I want to do that with The Starless Sea but I struggle to pick a particular point. It is a wide open landscape with enough features to fill… well, a book. 

So instead what I want to focus on is the way that Morgenstern approaches the idea of stories. Everyone has an idea about what makes a good novel. I lead a book club and most of the people in attendance do not consider any sort of speculative fiction to be literary. I know people who won’t read ebooks because they aren’t “real books.” I have been told by a few people that I shouldn’t count the audiobooks I listen to as reading. Do graphic novels count as books? Do webcomics? What about fanfiction? Novels published exclusively online? What is a novel and what isn’t?

The Starless Sea could have been a book about how there is only one right kind of novel. But instead, it says that novels and stories can, and should, be anything. A story can be a book, bound and kept on a shelf. A story can be a boat on an endless, starless sea. A story can be told over and over, with the threads of it changing and growing with the reader. Morgenstern takes your hand and walks you through a museum of ways to tell stories. When you get to the end, she looks at you and says, “Do you see?” And you do. You see exactly what she’s saying because she’s used all these methods to say it.

A theme throughout the novel is the difference between novels and video games. Morgenstern takes an eraser to the line that separates them. They are both stories, so they are fundamentally the same. A lovingly cooked meal is the same as a story. A painstakingly knitted Ravenclaw scarf is the same as a story. The world, Morgenstern says, is made up of stories. Our job is to find them, to love them, and to protect them.

Thanks for going a little deep with me! I post reviews every other Thursday. Did you love The Starless Sea? Leave a comment telling me your favorite substory in it. You can also find me on Twitter @gwasserst! Special thanks to Yasi (@yasaminnb) for editing my posts.

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