Tuesday 9 February 2021

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Review: The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

Published: 6th August 2020 | Publisher: Vintage | Source: Bought
Erin Morgenstern's Website

When Zachary Rawlins stumbles across a strange book hidden in his university library, it leads him on a quest unlike any other. Its pages entrance him with their tales of lovelorn prisoners, lost cities and nameless acolytes, but they also contain something impossible: a recollection from his own childhood.

Determined to solve the puzzle of the book, Zachary follows the clues he finds on the cover - a bee, a key and a sword. They guide him to a masquerade ball, to a dangerous secret club, and finally through a magical doorway created by the fierce and mysterious Mirabel. This door leads to a subterranean labyrinth filled with stories, hidden far beneath the surface of the earth.

When the labyrinth is threatened, Zachary must race with Mirabel, and Dorian, a handsome barefoot man with shifting alliances, through its twisting tunnels and crowded ballrooms, searching for the end of his story.
The StoryGraph

When I originally heard Erin Morgenstern had written another novel, I was so very excited. I absolutely adored The Night Circus, Morgenstern's debut novel, and there had been a long wait for her second. I waited for the paperback to be released, and recently flew through it. The Starless Sea is an absolutely gorgeous novel, but I did finish it feeling disappointed.

The Starless Sea is an absolutely stunning novel. As with her previous book, Morgenstern has created a world full of whimsy and dreams, and does so with the most equisite of langauge. Reading The Starless Sea is an experience, and a highly enjoyable one. I was completely captivated, swept away by the idea of this underground labyrinthian library, where stories are recorded in all manner of ways, not just in books, where magic exists. But there's more to this story that just Zachary trying to figure out while a scene from his childhood is written in a book that was obviously published long before he was born, and what exactly the Harbor - as the library on the Starless Sea is called - is, and why someone would want to prevent anyone from ever finding it. It's also a story about stories. It all starts with Sweet Sorrows, the book Zachary finds in his university library, and others follow. Most are collections of short stoies, and we get to read each and everyone of those stories. Enchanting fairy tales that might be more than just fairy tales. As Zachary learns more about the Harbor, he discovers these stories are the clues to helping him figure things out.

I spent my time reading The Statless Sea in complete wonder, but for much of it, I didn't have a clue what was going on - much like Zachary. Everytime it got to a point which would be a great time for Zachary to actually ask some questions and get some answers, something else would happen, steering him forward on his quest. So I read on, following Zacahary on his journey of discovery, reading the fairy tales in between of pirates and key collectors, of star merchants and owl kings, coming up with my own theories. Theories upon theories. I was continually collecting puzzle pieces, and trying to see how they fit together, without any idea what the puzzle was meant to look like when it was complete. I would constatly flip back to previously read stories when Zachary saw something, or read something, or some comment was made, things possibly falling into place, but not definitely. I questioned who absolutely everyone was, including Zachary. Is he some other character in a story, without realising it? A story written like a fairy tale, but is actually a metaphor? Or maybe the others? There were times when I questions if each character was maybe two or three other characters? Is X actually A? Oooh, mauybe they're really B? But wait, hold on, are they actually C? You're constantly left wondering who is who and what exactly is going on. It's a mystery that keeps on giving; very few answers, but more questions with the tiny glimmers of answers that you get. And I absolutely revelled in it.

And that was mainly because I believed that by the end of the story, all my questions would be answered. And while some were, kind of, a lot weren't. It just ended. I think I now know what was going on the whole time, but it also seems kind of ridiculous. If this is what everyone knew the whole time, even the antagonists, if this is what would happen, why was there an antagonist in the first place? What was the point of certain people's actions? Honestly, it seems to me if certain people didn't behave ridiculously, before the story started, there wouldn't have been a story. Not this story, at least. I just finished thinking, "For god's sake, is that it?" There definitely needed to be at least an epilogue, and there were questions that weren't answered, so a number of things don't seem to make sense. There's a quote in the book, "Symbols are for interpretation, not definition," and some could argue that's the point here, but it's difficult to interpret when you find out one thing was a metaphor for something else, but no idea why or what exactly. And when someone turns out to have more than one identity, with no real explanation, I start to get completely confused. It's a fact that Morgenstern is an expert plotter; the way she put this book together, with breadcrumbs here and there, and some tiny detail you'd overlook being incredibly important later on. But when I'm told completely opposite things, and aren't given enough information, I'm left with massive question marks over certain areas where I have no clue what certain elements are, or what actually happened, or what the truth is. The Starless Sea is whimsical, and does have a certain magic realism around it, but it's not about not having aspects of world building explained, it's about not knowing what's actually going on, and having unexplained holes. I wish I could explain further, but it would be giving away spoilers.

I absolutely adored this story for the most part. It's so beautifully written, and I enjoyed the mystery of it all, the dreamlike quality. And I will absolutely be reading whatever Morgenstern writes in future, because even with my criticism, The Starless Sea is an absolute gem of a book, and a more enjoyable read than countless others. I just wish I understood more.

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