3/100 – The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

FYI, I’m blogging my way through what I hope to be 100 books read in 2020.

I really enjoyed listening to The Night Circus on audiobook so when Erin Morgenstern’s new novel The Starless Sea came out I figured why not go with the same format. My reward?An enchanting, mythical, romantic and adventure filled story about stories. Rich with characters, world building, and storytelling of the highest order.

Publishers Description:

Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student in Vermont when he discovers a mysterious book hidden in the stacks. As he turns the pages, entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, key collectors, and nameless acolytes, he reads something strange: a story from his own childhood. Bewildered by this inexplicable book and desperate to make sense of how his own life came to be recorded, Zachary uncovers a series of clues—a bee, a key, and a sword—that lead him to a masquerade party in New York, to a secret club, and through a doorway to an ancient library hidden far below the surface of the earth. What Zachary finds in this curious place is more than just a buried home for books and their guardians—it is a place of lost cities and seas, lovers who pass notes under doors and across time, and of stories whispered by the dead. Zachary learns of those who have sacrificed much to protect this realm, relinquishing their sight and their tongues to preserve this archive, and also of those who are intent on its destruction. Together with Mirabel, a fierce, pink-haired protector of the place, and Dorian, a handsome, barefoot man with shifting alliances, Zachary travels the twisting tunnels, darkened stairwells, crowded ballrooms, and sweetly soaked shores of this magical world, discovering his purpose—in both the mysterious book and in his own life.

As noted, I started with audiobook, which I listened to in the car, but I had to read it when I wasn’t driving because I was so enthralled with the writing, story and characters. Having read some of the reviews, I will admit I am open to the idea that the audio version is the more engaging one.

After all, it is a story about stories. And what better way to get sucked into a story is to have it told to you complete with characters, voices, and all that modern audiobooks provide? Now, granted not all audiobooks pull you in and hold your attention but great storytelling with audio production values can really work.

Once I was sucked into the story, I quickly found myself reading the Kindle version when I wasn’t in the car. But I listened to the vast majority of the book.

Here is what I wrote about The Night Circus:

Morgenstern builds her world slowly and at first you might be tempted to ask “Where is all this going and what does it mean?” But the details are worth reading even as the world begins to come together.  And even as you know in some important ways what will happen you are carried along increasingly pulled into how it will happen and what the ramifications will be for these future events.  And just as you begin to get a sense of understanding all of the intertwining threads Morgenstern begins to pull at these threads and reveal more in the unraveling.

And there is a sense that the details are more important than the larger picture. If you are looking for intellectual or philosophical depth or coherence I am not sure you will find it. Instead, it works best if you can lose yourself in the details.

I think that is equally true for The Starless Sea.

Not for the New York Times:

Sound thrilling? It certainly might be, but it isn’t. And not because this book expects too much of its readers; following Zampanò in Mark Z. Danielewski’s “House of Leaves” is no simple stroll. But Morgenstern’s attempt to mingle a dozen or so narratives into an intertwined myth is strangely devoid of tension for a book in which a nameless woman’s tongue is cut out on Page 10. We flit from story to story like bees — bees, keys, swords, crowns and hearts dance a heady symbolic gavotte throughout — never knowing where we might land, or who will turn out to really be who, or if the pirate is a real pirate or a metaphor, or whether any of it has a point.

I lean more towards The Guardian:

The Starless Sea rejects older stories: it makes its own. Its magic is based in the New York Public Library, in glittering hotels, and the beautiful blatant kitsch of a professional fortune teller’s house. Rather than a traditional fantasy novel, this is an artificial myth in its own right, soldered together from the girders of skyscrapers – a myth from and for the US, rather than inherited from older nations. Like any myth, it refuses to decode its own symbols. A reader might find this deliberate vagueness either uplifting or maddening, but the novel’s scope and ambition are undeniable.

Also, NPR:

What did work for me, deeply and wholesomely and movingly, was the whole affect of the book, its warmth, its helpless love of storytelling and beautiful, polished fables. It’s a book that’s a pleasure to dwell in, a delicious experience to dip in and out of; I took to only reading it before bed, because it felt built of pre-dream sweetness, of that familiar, childhood longing for adventures that feel like home. When I finished it, I was uncertain of my thoughts about the whole; the next night, when I realized there was nothing left of it to read, I felt lost and sad. Take your time with it, as you would an expensive cocktail or a warm, honeyed bread. It’s a lot bigger from the inside.

I feel like I have to go back and read the book from start to finish to see if I agree with the book’s critics. I was able to kind of soak into the book during my long commute and read snippets before bed. I think this is critical to enjoying it. If you want character depth and plot driven story this is not for you.

I just enjoyed the language, the imagination, the description. I wanted to lose myself in stories. And when I was listening to The Starless Sea I could do that.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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