Friday, August 6, 2021

The Starless Sea - Erin Morgenstern

Title: The Starless Sea
Author: Erin Morgenstern
Publisher: Doubleday Canada, 2019 (Hardcover)/Anchor Canada, 2020 (Paperback)
Length: 494 pages (Hardcover), 570 pages (Paperback)
Genre: Adult; Fantasy
Started: July 31, 2021
Finished: August 3, 2021

From the inside cover (Hardcover):

Far beneath the surface of the earth, upon the shores of the Starless Sea, there is a labyrinthine collection of tunnels and rooms filled with stories. The entryways that lead to this sanctuary are often hidden, sometimes on forest floors, sometimes in private homes, sometimes in plain sight. But those who seek will find. Their doors have been waiting for them.

Zachary Ezra Rawlins is searching for his door, though he does not know it. He follows a silent siren song, an inexplicable certainty that he is meant for another place. When he discovers a mysterious book in the stacks of his campus library, he begins to read and is entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, lost cities, and nameless acolytes. Suddenly, a turn of the page brings Zachary to a story from his own childhood, impossibly written in this book that is older than he is. 

A bee, a key, and a sword emblazoned on the book lead Zachary to two people who will change the course of his life: Mirabel, a fierce, pink-haired painter, and Dorian, a handsome, barefoot man with shifting alliances. These strangers guide Zachary through masquerade-party dances and whispered backroom stories to the headquarters of a secret society, where doorknobs hang from ribbons, and finally through a door conjured from paint to the place he has always yearned for. 

Amid twisting tunnels filled with books, gilded ballrooms, and wine-dark shores, Zachary falls into an intoxicating world soaked in romance and mystery. But a battle is raging over the fate of this place, and though there are those who would willingly sacrifice everything to protect it, there are just as many intent on its destruction. As Zachary, Mirabel, and Dorian venture deeper into the space and its histories and myths searching for answers and one another, a timeless love story unspools, casting a spell of pirates, painters, lovers, liars, and ships that sail upon a Starless Sea. 

"We are all stardust and stories" (373) so this story says, and oh, this book has already developed a tale that I will re-tell to my children and grandchildren to highlight the lengths I will go to for a book. I was reading people's opinions about my previous read, The Midnight Library, and one reader mentioned that they had hoped The Midnight Library was going to be like The Starless Sea and was disappointed that it wasn't. That intrigued me, and down a few rabbit holes later I was reading a sample of the novel on Amazon and didn't even reach the end before I knew I needed this book. Like yesterday.

Reserved a copy from the library, but then realized it wouldn't arrive for several days. That simply would not do. Cue quick trip to neighbouring bookstore after checking that it was indeed in stock. Frantic, immersive reading sessions ensues. Feelings of regret occur upon realizing the paperback I bought had a crappy glue job along the spine, which leads to the last twenty pages of the book falling out before I finish reading it, it's beyond saving. By this point I knew I was going to be buying a hardcover version, because I was already in love with it, but the only place that had a hardcover available was Book Depository (which is a great UK site I've used before, and they have free worldwide shipping). So close to $75 and several copies later (one which will have travelled across several countries by the time it gets to me), all for one book. 

That's how much I love this story.

However, I fully admit this book is only going to appeal to a very specific group of readers. 

The Starless Sea is laid out in six parts. The chapters within each part alternate between narrating a piece of the main story following Zachary, or presenting a fable or alternate narrative not from Zachary's perspective. Those interspersed fables come from the books Zachary reads within the novel, and are actually integral to the plot. For example, we the reader read about the contents of Sweet Sorrows, the book Zachary finds in his campus library, before we even meet Zachary himself. At first it can seem as if the main storyline is being interrupted by narratives that make no sense, until you realize that every detail in those interludes does eventually show up within the main storyline, everything is connected. So anyone who is not fond of the "story within a story" types of plots will probably not like this novel. That stuff's totally up my alley though, so I welcome it gladly. 

This novel is also quite meta, which some people will also dislike. If you're looking for a story that explains things definitively where nothing is left up to interpretation, this might not be the book for you. Even I had to go back to sections and reread parts in order to follow along with the parallel storylines that eventually converge. Though I was able to follow along pretty well, some people will find this confusing and get turned off of the story. 

Onto the good things though. This novel is a love letter to books and stories, an ode if you will (the writing even has a beautiful poetic quality to it). The fables interspersed with Zachary's story weren't really distracting for me because I loved them as much as Zachary's main story. The novel speaks of the nature of stories and the people who find refuge in them, and the descriptions of the library itself are like something from any of my wildest dreams. 

The characters are endearing, even the ones that are a bit flat at first because their full stories aren't revealed until close to the end. I have to give the author credit for making Zachary explicitly BIPOC and LGBTQ in the text, plus there's also some LGBTQ content mentioned in passing in some of the fables, which I appreciated too.

The writing is phenomenal, it sucks you in and immerses you completely in this world to the point where I almost caution people to read this over a few days where you don't have anything pressing to do, because you will be not be able to put it down. There's also a ton of quotable lines here, and this is a novel that will likely need multiple readings to fully catch everything. 

Some of my favourite excerpts include:

"There is no fixing. There is only moving forward in the brokenness" (378).

"This is not where our story ends, he writes. This is only where it changes" (476).

"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" (125-126).

And Dorian's "Once, very long ago, Time fell in love with Fate" fable that he whispers in Zachary's ear at the masquerade (pgs. 70-73). 

If you're a reader at your core, love stories, and still believe in magic (to the point where you check wardrobes for portals to Narnia like Zachary), you need to read this book. I'm not even doing the story justice here, so just trust me and give it a go. 

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the hardcover version (pictured above) with the keys in a black and gold colour scheme. But this little beauty, a UK exclusive that is sadly no longer available, is so. freaking. pretty:
(Image found here).

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