‘The Starless Sea’ by Erin Morgenstern is a fantasy novel that reads largely like a modern fairytale, and the book plays off this idea largely with it’s symbolism and in the way that it is written. The book currently has an average rating of 3.87 on Goodreads and I have rated it 5 stars.
Far beneath the surface of the Earth there is a starless sea, and on it’s shore a labyrinth library full of books and stories from the ages. The doorways to this place are often hidden in plain sight, but those who seek it will find these doors as the doors have been waiting for them. Zachary is unknowingly searching for his doorway, and drawn by a feeling he can’t explain he picks up a book in his university library that tells impossible stories, including a story of his childhood that’s written in a book older than him. The symbols in the book lead him to two strangers, Mirabel and Dorian, and they lead him into their world of romance and mystery and maybe a place worth dying for as a battle rages over it’s fate.
‘Strange, isn’t it? To love a book. When the words on the pages become so precious that they feel like part of your own history because they are’
It’s not very often that a book comes along and touches me in a way that I can’t explain, when the feelings it has provoked are impossible to put down on paper in any elegant way, and this was a book that did that for me. I went into this not expecting to love it as I didn’t love ‘The Night Circus’, but Morgenstern certainly proved to me they’re an exceptionally talented writer who deserves to be regarded as a great author.
This is a rather strange review to write as everytime I try to put something down I instead write some review full of ‘poetic’ nonsense, none of it is useful for a review, which is not what you came here to read. I think it’s hard as this does’t read as a modern novel, but rather a new fairytale in modern form – and how are we meant to critically review fairytales?
The characters in this are not the most fleshed out characters I have ever read, they don’t feel explicitly complex, yet all of them feel real. I feel like I could have plucked each from the pages of this book and they could have stood on their own two feet in our world, and they would have been extraordinary. Whilst they weren’t complex, they were however distinct and you could see some growth – particularly in Zachary who became a much braver and courageous figure as the book continued. I loved all the characters we met and they’ve all stayed with me since I finished this novel, so whilst there may be better character work out there, it is undeniable to me they are good characters.
The romances in this were sweet and spoke of the true love often included in fairytales, except slightly better – no one kissed anyone awake from a deep slumber without their consent and then married their victim – so that was good. But the romances were what fairytale readers yearn for, great stories of love that span ages, distances and war and lovers who that doesn’t matter to as they know they’ll meet again. It was wonderfully done and the romance pulled at my heartstrings continuously, especially with the deep symbolism that was used when talking about each pairing.
However, the true wonder of this book is Morgenstern’s imagination and creativity. The world she has built for this novel is exceptional, and I’m sad there seems to be no plans to write any other books in this world as it feels like such a waste not to. It is a testament to Morgenstern’s great writing skills that they have built a deeply complex world that never feels overdone or overcrowded, each layer of the mystery surrounding Zachary’s surroundings and this secret world he’s in is peeled back slowly one by one; the writing guides the reader through each location with such certainty that it’s easy to fall into the world and imagine yourself walking next to Zachary as he explores all there is. It’s also surprisingly easy to follow along with where the story is and how it all connects, largely due to the writing style that beautifully encapsulates the scenery without the narrative ever feeling bogged down by it.
The pacing in this can be slow at times. It is not a story that rushes towards the end, instead it takes it’s time to show you all there is to see and learn, and it doesn’t want you to miss out on anything, this worked for me as I like stories told like this, but it may not be for you for that reason. As well as this, I loved how the narrative at times switches and some chapters were stories, tales and myths that connected with the main story but you didn’t know that when you read them. I found this to be fascinating and a great way to world-build, however I understand not everyone enjoys a shift in narrative from chapter to chapter and this could be annoying to certain readers so please also keep that in mind.
Overall it’s a stunning story that has remnants of the old, classic fairytales I’m sure we all know, but this modernises the concept. It drags the genre into the modern world whilst still keeping some of it’s most beloved features without turning it into a retelling: it stands as it’s own, original story and it is beautiful.