Review: The Starless Sea
Updated: Sep 12
1/5 stars (is generous)
The Starless Sea, by Erin Morgenstern (2019)
I am so, so sad to report that I did not like this book. I loved Morgenstern's first novel, The Night Circus, and was very excited when I found out a new one was coming out (not related content-wise to the first). And I'd say for the first 1/4 of the book, I maintained that excitement... but after that I started to really dislike it, and by the final 1/4 I was just skimming.
(Read to the end to see some good things about the book, though)
On the surface of it, I should have loved this - because I love books about books/reading! And this is basically about a massive, secret, underground library. Unfortunately, there's really no discernible plot, and none of the characters felt like anything more than some words on a page. Morgenstern does write beautifully... but if you're going to go with nonsensical prose, maybe try a book of poetry. (I'm NOT saying all poetry is nonsensical prose, I just mean THIS book was, and she really does have a way with language that makes me think she'd write beautiful poetry). I also didn't find the world-building to be as cohesive as in The Night Circus, and I find it interesting that in one interview I read, Morgenstern basically says that writing this book was different from her first because she kind of knew where she was going, but also didn't. Yep, that's what it felt like!
I just had to steal this Goodreads reviewer's description of the plot, because it's perfect:
"The plot? A girl character is walking through a forest and falls through a door, then a pirate seduces a girl with stories, then a college student goes to a costume party after a mysterious invitation, then a completely different set of people are struggling for a book running through halls full of books. A heart lies inside a puzzle box lying on top of a book, and while the heart exists, stories will never die in the eyes of owls. A man enters an elevator with no buttons to indicate floors. Bees, swords and keys are burned into human chests by tongueless acolytes, while guardians wearing white fur coats chase a confused man stumbling in a dark street which turns into a leafy forest in summer, and then finds himself on a snowy slope with large-eyed owls. Cats, bored and yawning, are sitting in a nearby bookcase set in a rocky cliff wall, with an elaborately carved door in the middle shelf. Where is the painted doorknob? A cave becomes a museum with candles, kitchen and chandeliers. Then friends are together sailing a boat on a starless sea. They drink the honey the sea consists of. A college student dies, then he turns into a table while his friends drink tea and eat muffins on top of his body, wondering if there are doors beyond the sea or will the sea disappear? Looking about, they see cats and owls staring at them from rocky cliffs. Fate pulls itself together, while Time cries. The moon and sun are together conspiring against Fate."
There are also:
Annoyingly frequent and obvious references to Chronicles of Narnia, Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter, Where the Wild Things Are, The Magicians, etc.
A lot of bees and owls for absolutely no reason, and a stag at one point, and a cat that says "No" when asked if it can talk.
Stars hanging from ceilings, or no stars hanging from ceilings because they fell in a hole, maybe?
Doors, and doorknobs that go missing. And moons. And keys.
Pseudo-academic babble about the similarities between books and video games that I just never bought into.
Love stories with no lead-up to the reason for love, and people hating each other with no back-story explanation.
Things changing into other things. Like, constantly.
A maiming? (Why?!) Someone's hand gets cut off, and then it's in a jar, I guess.
A very boring main protagonist that stuff just happens to.
Here is what it boils down to: I felt like I was reading someone's weird dream diary. So, if you're someone who really loves hearing about other people's dreams, you might like this. Or maybe if you like really experimental fiction?
But listen. IT'S NOT ALL BAD! At our book club meeting for this book last week I was fascinated to hear about what other people liked - because a number of people really loved it! So... I heard people say that it felt ingenious the way Morgenstern wove so many stories together - like it was a puzzle you had to work hard at to unravel. It was also pointed out that the book aims to connect books and gaming by giving you the experience of being inside of a game while you're reading. I'm not a gamer, so this didn't really jump out at me, but I can totally see how someone who is familiar with both would find the world of The Starless Sea more intriguing than I did. I also think a second reading of this book would be more interesting - because if you're super intrigued by the mysteries of the book, a second reading would allow you to put more pieces together, instead of trying to follow the thread of the story.
Anyway, I really did love hearing the different perspectives on this book in the Book Thieves meet up, and just because I'm giving it one star and a pretty scathing review doesn't mean YOU shouldn't try it! Because clearly it struck a chord for a lot of people. Just very much not with me.
UP NEXT: Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts, by Kate Racculia