A long time ago, a decade and in many ways another life ago, I read The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern’s first novel. Also highly acclaimed, it didn’t live up to its hype for me—but I wasn’t surprised. I reviewed it, filed it away, and didn’t really think about Morgenstern again until I saw The Starless Sea in my bookstore. I read the description, and I thought, “Hmm. Another story about stories. Not original. But maybe….”
Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a college student who discovers a book that seems to be telling the story of his life. It recounts a time in his childhood when, walking home alone, he came across a door painted in the wall. He didn’t open the door. If he had, he would have discovered an entire world hidden underground—a world of starless seas and magnificent libraries and temporal anomalies and more. Now he’s playing catch-up, working alongside a shifty guy named Dorian, an passionate painter named Mirabel, and fighting against someone who seems determined to cut off access to the world below by the world above.
You ever read a book that is just one hundred percent vibes? That’s what this is—and I mean that as a compliment.
Stories about stories are not, as I observed, anything new. Cloud Cuckoo Land, as well as N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became and its sequel, are both examples I can pull from my recent reading. Writers love to write about stories, and I don’t blame them. Storytelling is one of the ultimate activities that define our humanity, and so by its very nature it should examine itself. With The Starless Sea, Morgenstern is asking whether the reality of the fairy tale can ever truly be as romantic as the telling of it.
I got strong notes of The Princess Bride reading this. Maybe it’s the mysterious, condemned pirate we meet at the start of the book, or the equally enigmatic Dorian. Maybe it’s the relationship between Zachary and Dorian, the edge of “true love” never quite articulated. The same kind of romance between Mirabel and her paramour. This is a book whose pages resemble dimly lit rooms that cast soft shadows over everything. There are no sharp edges, but there are also no easy answers.
As Zachary attempts to learn more about the mysterious world into which he has intruded, Morgenstern presents the reader with more fairy tales and folk stories. Each one feels related, in some way, to the others. They’re all connected, not in obvious ways but not subtly either—themes and recurring motifs, like pairs of lovers, winding their way through these stories before ultimately being distilled into “reality”—such as that is in this book.
This is what I mean when I say The Starless Sea is vibes. The characters don’t really matter; hell, the plot itself doesn’t matter. What matters is the experience of reading it, curled up on my couch under a blanket in the depths of January winter. The way Morgenstern’s stories-within-stories trickled into me, warding me against the chill, and stoked the fires of my memories of a decade—or even two—ago, when I had more time to read and more latitude to be amazed.
I don’t really know what to say about The Starless Sea as a story. The story exists. It’s fun at times, frustrating at others—the book seems to insist that exposition must be an all-or-nothing affair, and as much as I appreciate Morgenstern’s confidence in the reader’s ability to put the pieces together, sometimes I do just want things spelled out, you know? Moreover, I am often critical of books with ambiguous endings, but this is one of those cases where the book definitely earns it.
As a book, as an experience of turning pages and reading, this was very satisfying for me. It hit the right spots of nostalgia for me and my love of stories. Indeed, it is a great example of what we mean when we say we read to escape: for the hours I spent on this adventure with Zachary, I was able to forget about what was happening in this world around us, so enthralled was I in the worlds he was trying to explore. And why else do we read if not for that?