Review: The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

Published last year, The Starless Sea is the long awaited follow-up to Erin Morgenstern’s best selling The Night Circus, though the two are completely separate and unrelated stories. It’s almost 500 pages long, a twisting tale of magic, mystery and adventure, but is it worth a read?

Erin Morgenstern burst onto the literary scene nine years ago with her bestselling debut, The Night Circus. It has since become a beloved favourite of many a reader and is certainly one of the books that crops up again and again as a favourite amongst our subscribers – even those who don’t ordinarily read fantasy!

I was late to the party and only read The Night Circus for the first time last year and I have to admit, it was because I had already seen the blurb for The Starless Sea, desperately wanted to read it and thought that maybe it would be best to read her debut first, even though the two were completely unrelated.

I greatly enjoyed The Night Circus. In fact, I rated it the full five stars on Goodreads and then I started to worry. Would I enjoy The Starless Sea just as much? It’s over 500 pages long – what if I hate it? I loathe to mark a book as a DNF.

I had all these concerns about The Starless Sea before I had even held it in my hands and I hadn’t been waiting eight years to read it, like many of Morgenstern’s fans – I could only imagine their trepidation.

‘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.’ 

In actuality, The Starless Sea proved to be my first five star read in a while, following a stream of two and three star-ers. It absolutely blew me away and, this may be an unpopular opinion, it was even better than The Night Circus. There, I said it.

I gave The Night Circus five stars because I loved it but there were a few small issues for me, the topmost being my detachment from the characters.

While I loved the way every scene was so vivid, how the book played out like a movie in my head as I read it, I did find that I struggled to become truly invested in the characters and their fates. There were so many of them and the book flitted between them so often that I couldn’t help but feel that they were underdeveloped compared to the carefully crafted intricacies of the circus and the wider world of the novel.

Arguably, Celia is the protagonist of The Night Circus, but I still felt rather detached from her by the end of the book. I knew her needs and desires and I did hope that she would have a happy ending (I’m not a monster) but I still felt like I didn’t really care, more that I was along for the ride and what would be, would be.

The Starless Sea hosts an array of characters just as interesting as those in The Night Circus but this time around Morgenstern has a single dedicated protagonist, Zachary Ezra Rawlins, and boy oh boy is he a lovable one to boot.

‘Spiritual but not religious,” Zachary clarifies. He doesn’t say what he is thinking, which is that his church is held-breath story listening and late-night-concert ear-ringing rapture and perfect-boss fight-button pressing. That his religion is buried in the silence of freshly fallen snow, in a carefully crafted cocktail, in between the pages of a book somewhere after the beginning but before the ending.’

He’s relatable and sympathetic and we spend enough time with him, as well as seeing him through the eyes of other characters, that you truly feel like you’ve come to know him by the end of the book. Zachary, though an introvert and unassuming individual, just leapt from the page and burrowed his way right into my heart. You can’t help to be invested in his destiny as he becomes deeper embroiled in the plot.

I loved how Zachary’s story was broken up by snippets of the texts that he was reading and discovering on his journey. We’re allowed to see for ourselves the stories that he is reading but not merely through the lens of Zachary’s understanding and interpretation. The reader gets to draw their own meaning from the myths and fables that are included.

I read in another review that Morgenstern has broken fantasy fiction convention with this book – I agree. The Starless Sea doesn’t borrow lore from history or existing tales. It creates its own, acknowledges that there are metaphors and symbols throughout and leaves the reader to decide what they mean. I think that this is something that will either infuriate or invigorate readers. Personally, I loved it.

‘Not all stories speak to all listeners, but all listeners can find a story that does, somewhere, sometime. In one form or another.’

This book stands apart from anything else I have read. It’s a book about and for story lovers – a pure indulgence. I am jealous of everyone else that comes to this book for the first time, though I’m sure that I’ll discover something new each time a reread it and I will be rereading it.

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