Teenage Zachary Ezra Rawlins finds a door painted in a wall that looks like it may be a portal into another land. He doesn’t open it. Many years later, he finds a book in his university library that tells a strange story about a boy who doesn’t open a door, a secret world of stories protected by guardians and acolytes, and of star crossed lovers. The book was clearly written much before Zachary’s birth, so how does it know what it does? How is it telling his story, the story of the path he didn’t take, the call he refused? He wonders ‘how, exactly, he is supposed to continue a story he didn’t know he was in’, when he finds the book, but later realises ‘he was never at the beginning of this story. This story is much, much older than he is, and so begins his quest.
In Erin Morgenstern’s much awaited second novel, The Starless Sea, we are inundated with mystery and magic.
Zachary is, too, as he embarks on a quest to figure out this story, to find the starless sea and the harbour beside it. He meets Mirabel who always, always seems to know more than she lets on, especially about the world beyond the painted doors (but insists she’s not the creator of this story: ‘ I gave you doors. You chose whether or not you opened them. I don’t write the story, I only nudge it in different directions’), Dorian, whose alliances may not be clear but is attractive for many reasons, and Allegra, who seems to be on a dedicated, ruthless mission to destroy any portal that may exist—any where, any time, any place. But it’s not quite as simple as that—a story of lovers adrift in time and space intersects with Zachary’s quest, and it’s a good long while before the various narratives Morgenstern is playing with start to untangle from the opening knot of the novel.
The Starless Sea sets up multiple esoteric ideas about stories and storytelling, right from the very start. Heavy with symbolism, loaded with metaphor and drowned in backstories for many characters (who do hold their own, so that helps), the plot of the novel is fairly obtuse for the first 100 pages or so, beautiful though it may be. Morgenstern recently told Publishers Weekly that writing plot is like ‘pulling teeth’ for her, and while one can empathise, there are times it does indeed take some searching to find the plot of The Starless Sea. One of the characters, Kat, describes it meta-perfectly:
I got to thinking this might be a halfway decent game if it were a game. Part spy movie, part fairy tale, part choose your own adventure. Epic branching story that doesn’t stick to a singe genre or one set path and turns into different stores but it’s all the same story.
A book is made of paper but a story is a tree.
You meet someone in a bar. You follow them or you don’t.
You open a door. Or you don’t.
Unfortunately the gorgeous little details can feel a bit precious at times. Character’s unique cocktails, their cutesy little quirks of bunny ears, edible stories, and the constant cats wandering through the narrative can be a little twee at times because while they are all lovely details to the mis en scene, they’re not really moving anything forward in terms of plot. Are they symbols? Metaphors? Morgenstern is right in assuming that many readers will attempt to decipher them and happily suspend disbelief regardless of fairy tale logic (because there are certain rules we all assume for even fantasy lands), because these elements will be much loved by many fans, of course, but will make others wonder what a leaner version of the book would’ve read like. The Starless Sea often reads like a high-end goth-hipster pastiche, which can obviously be quite divisive.
But this is very much a book about books, a story about stories. Morgenstern has rooted her narrative in a myth that she has made up—there is no reference for the world she’s created, no way to figure out where the Owl King came from for example, other than from inside her head. There ‘are gods with lost myths, writing themselves new ones’, and that’s wonderfully original and captivating. One of the lead characters is reborn, in different bodies, through time and space, again and again the way a video game character would be. Entire world’s are imagined and accessed through doorways and every door chosen leads to a different world at a different time. Nothing is static, nothing can be assumed and everything is being made up as we go along. In The Starless Sea, books are a portable magic, yes, but also sacred because they may hold the answer to the universe, or the story that leads someone to their fate of saving the world (Which world? Why the one that’s been made up, of course!). Every bibliophile knows that a good story can save your life—that the right story can save your life, and in the world of The Starless Sea, that may just be quite literal. And what would you sacrifice to protect the stories you loved? What would you give up to save an entire world of them?
The Starless Sea is a love story, an epic love letter to the art of storytelling and to the power of stories. It’s a complex ode to unfamiliar mythic narratives that spills out in many directions because ‘the stories of a place are not easily contained’. Towards the end the threads come together beautifully so, with all the rising emotion and hope and grandeur a reader could want.
Mahvesh loves dystopian fiction & appropriately lives in Karachi, Pakistan. She writes about stories & interviews writers the Tor.com podcast Midnight in Karachi when not wasting much too much time on Twitter.