The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

Title: The Starless Sea

Author: Erin Morgenstern

Genre: Fantasy

Year: 2019

Far beneath the surface of the earth, the Starless Sea awaits those who can open the right doors. Its harbours are home to a labyrinthine series of tunnels connecting all kinds of rooms, all of them filled with stories waiting to be found.

When Zachary finds an event from his own childhood written in an old, mysterious book from his campus library, he is determined to find out what it means. The symbols on the spine of the book – a bee, a key, and a sword – lead him to two fascinating strangers: Mirabel, a pink-haired painter, and Dorian, a man with a voice perfect for storytelling.

A closer look

I’ve tried to write a more extensive synopsis for this book, but I’m honestly struggling to find the right things to say. The Starless Sea tries be a lot of things all at once, and that makes it quite hard to describe. But let’s try anyway.

The story begins with Zachary, a college student on winter break, who is spending his free time reading books from the campus library. Relatable, I know.
His interest is piqued by an old, mysterious volume whose title is Sweet Sorrows. There is no author on the book, and even the library system doesn’t recognise it. Intrigued, Zachary brings the book back to his room and starts to read.

The book is filled with short stories: a pirate behind bars and the girl who brings him food; the trials and ceremony for becoming an acolyte – whatever that means; and the story of a young boy finding a painted door in a back alley, but deciding not to open it.
This is the moment Zachary realises something isn’t quite right: this story is about him and the door he found when he was a kid, but the book is way older than he is. How is that even possible? Curious and a little scared, Zachary begins to search for clues and ends up going to a masquerade where he meets two people who will change his life: Mirabel, a painter with bright pink hair, and Dorian, a handsome man fond of telling stories in the dark.

Zachary is swept into the corridors and gilded rooms of the harbour on the Starless Sea, this mysterious place that was named time and again in his precious old book, and gets unwillingly caught in the struggles to protect it from people that wish to prevent anyone from ever getting there.

This book was a lot. The plot is quite vague for a large portion of the story; the protagonist is kind of dragged one way or the other by the other characters or simply wanders without aim.
That’s not a huge problem for me, personally; but I must admit that, when the plot took a more defined shape, I found myself struggling to follow along. Things just came out of nowhere sort of randomly, and while the imagery and language were beautiful, it felt a bit disjointed. I would have loved to understand more about the villain’s motives and plans. The way her story wrapped up was a bit underwhelming for me.

Speaking of disjointed, the fact that the chapters were separated by short stories taken from the books in the story didn’t help much. As much as I like stories within stories and most of them had some kind of relationship to the main plot/setting, the rest of them were simply unnecessary – and I personally didn’t care for the diary entries in the last part of the book.

The characters, I have nothing against. I loved Zachary’s quiet panic and the way he still managed to overcome it from time to time; loved the intrigue surrounding Dorian. The other characters were fine as well, but I feel like I didn’t care nearly as much about them. Which is a bit of a problem, because as the story moved along, they took more and more space that I would have loved to spend with Zachary and Dorian.

The setting is probably the most fascinating thing about this book. The idea of this underground place, this glittering sea, those long corridors and ballrooms all overflowing with stories appeals to the deepest part of my soul. I devoured the short stories that expanded on this magical setting.
BUT, there is a big but. As much as I admire the author’s ability with words, I found myself zoning out very often during the descriptions. Not because they were badly written or not interesting; I think the problem was that I found them to be very static and ultimately I didn’t care enough to pay attention. I was skimming them in order to get to the next “thing” that would move the story forward, and then had to go back and really focus to make sure I wasn’t missing on any fundamental information.

On the other hand, the writing style really worked for me when the characters were interacting with each other. Unfortunately, I didn’t get nearly enough time with the characters I was most interested in.

I’ve been thinking about this book for more than a week and I’m honestly still unsure about my general thoughts about it. I loved the writing style, but I lost interest in parts; I loved the characters, but so much time was spent with people I didn’t care too much about; I loved the setting, but so much was left untold and I would have killed to have more information about the Starless Sea and everything that relates to it.

So in the end I really, really liked the book, but it was missing something for me to consider it a new favourite. I had super high hopes for it, so that might have set my expectations slightly too high to be realistic. It’s still a beautifully written story, and if you can put up with a thin plot and a lot of meandering through a series of beautiful backgrounds, then the soft characters of this story might just steal your heart.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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