Have you ever read a book and not know exactly what happened in the story, but you do know that you liked it? Yeah, welcome to my experience with The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern.
Rating: 4 Stars
The Starless Sea
Author: Erin Morgenstern
Release Date: November 5, 2019
Synopsis: From the New York Times bestselling author of The Night Circus, a timeless love story set in a secret underground world—a place of pirates, painters, lovers, liars, and ships that sail upon a starless sea.
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.
Let me start this review by saying that I read this book via audiobook and that was the WRONG choice for a first read on this one. At least, for me it was. There are many interweaving, yet seemingly random, stories throughout the book, and while the audiobook has numerous narrators to help distinguish different stories, it was still difficult to keep hold of the all the threads. At a certain point I gave up on trying to understand what was actually happening in the story and just let myself enjoy the writing and atmosphere of the book.
So, if you want to know what the book was about, this is not the review for you.
For me, reading Morgenstern’s writing is like being a newcomer to wine tasting. I got my first sip, and I know I like it, but I couldn’t even begin to tell you what I like about it. I could mention it’s headiness, it’s richness, but the more subtle complexities just didn’t resonate with me enough to call them out.
A lot of this falls onto me for reading the audiobook first. This book has some time travel shenanigans (yay!) and as I was listening, I constantly wanted to flip back to previous chapters or pages to get my bearings. But you can’t easily do that with an audiobook. I know if I had read this book physically first, I would have fallen madly in love.
The whole story gave me The Magicians vibes with doses of River Song/Doctor Who. But it was always it’s own unique story. I constantly felt a hum of unknown magic as I read and it kept me going, even though I was completely lost in the story.
I feel that The Starless Sea is going to be one of those books you either love or hate. The plot is completely non-linear and there is not a typical protagonist vs antagonist theme to follow. The story is a journey, through all kinds of places you never thought you’d see, and the whole point is just to take the journey. I’ve seen many calling the book out for no plot, and it bothers me that some people think you have to follow strict plot rules to be a good story. There is a plot, it’s just not set up like many others out there. The Starless Sea is not your average story and therefore it does not adhere to average storytelling mechanics.
Before I wrap this up, I’d like to point out that the audiobook narrators are sheer perfection. Their voices were all perfectly mysterious and enchanting, just like the story. I was particularly happy to find out that Fiona Hardingham was the narrator for the section of the book title The Ballad of Simon and Eleanor, as that was the one part of the story that stood out to me the most. Even though I don’t recommend the audiobook for a first read, if you want to reread The Starless Sea, I would 100% recommend doing it via audiobook.
For me, a mark of a book I enjoyed is my desire to reread it. While I had trouble keeping the story of The Starless Sea straight in my head, I want to reread it. I want to sit in front of the book and read the words and let them weave the story around me, like I think they will. I want to untangle the chaotic web that I got stuck in during the audiobook and reveal the beautiful, multi-layered story I think is there.
I was provided an audio copy of The Starless Sea through the Libro.fm influencer program. The decision to review this novel was completely my own and my opinions are not influenced in any way. For more information about Libro.fm and their audiobook service (which support independent bookstores), please visit their website. If you sign up for an account via my referral link, the first month of your membership is free and I will be compensated with 1 audiobook after your first month of membership.