Books,  Books, WIPs, + Sips,  Reviews

The Starless Sea

The Starless Sea

by Erin Morgenstern
Published by: Doubleday Books
Publish Date: 2019
Genre(s): Fiction, Fantasy, Magical Realism, LGBT, Books About Books
HB&W Rating: 3
View on Goodreads
Buy on Amazon: Barnes & Noble, Book Depository


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.

Synopsis source: Goodreads

This title is a Books, WIPs, and Sips Book Club Pick

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“How are you feeling?” Zachary asks.

Like I’m losing my mind, but in a slow, achingly beautiful sort of way.

This book is either genius or madness, and whichever it is depends completely upon the reader’s interpretation. If you hope to have any chance at fully understanding this book, you will need to read it at least twice, and even then there are no guarantees. My first time through, I listened to it as an audiobook, and admittedly there is a lot that can be lost in listening to a book as opposed to reading the words on a page, but it wasn’t just because it was an audiobook. It was largely due to the nature of THIS book. There’s a LOT going on, and also not much at all. There are beautiful turns of phrase, and there are sentences that run into and over one another. The run-on thing bothered me in the audiobook reading of it, which I thought was the way the actors were reading it, but I later realized when reading the eBook that it wasn’t the fault of the actors or production but was actually the fault of the writing.

Regardless, there’s just something about Morgentstern’s way of writing that utterly transports you. It’s transcendent in a way. I mean, come on, an underground “book-centric fantasia” with stories inscribed on walls, folded paper stars, and autumn leaves, magically appearing in wisps of smoke and sips of champagne? Cozy nooks and reading areas, themed parties, art, mystery and magic? How can you not be completely transfixed and enchanted? With its beautiful imagery and literary allusions (including a reference to her own earlier work, The Night Circus), this is truly a book for book-lovers. Her almost dream-like prose is what drew me into The Night Circus and something I was looking forward to again in this novel.

The book is a series of nested stories within stories, starting with a jailed pirate and a girl, intertwining their tale with those of others, told alongside the story of Zachary Ezra Rawlins. The individual stories are beautiful, poignant, and tragic. I enjoyed the shorter individual stories, but as the stories overlapped to fit into the larger story, everything was steeped in so much metaphor, it was difficult to perceive which elements were meaningful and served to further the story and which were simply decorative. As long as the book is (almost 500 pages in the original version), there are definitely an abundance of superfluous elements that easily could have been cut out. This is not a light read, and this is not a short read.

We are all stardust and stories.

This book is going to appeal to lit geeks. The protagonist is a nerdy gamer who prefers the company of books to people. There are a lot of allusions to past popular lit scattered throughout, which will have bibliophiles cheering. And I love that this book makes you think about what makes a story, about how we are each of us our own stories. I enjoyed the scene discussing what types of elements make a story compelling, particularly as it talks about how a reader relates to at story.

I appreciate how Morgentstern uses the metaphor of the Starless Sea to illustrate the way a person can lose themselves in a story, the deeper into the story they go, the less they remember of real-life until much time has passed and you don’t remember what of your memories is a dream and what is real, and the dangers of going too deep (but this could just be my own personal meaning found in the story). But honestly, that was about as much meaning as I took from this book when I was hoping for so much more.

While listening to the audiobook, the story twisted and turned so much that the plot got lost at sea, pun intended. Much of the time I was utterly confused as to what was going on. I only began to understand when I read it a second time, with the benefit of knowing the ending. Regardless of whether you read this once or twice, don’t go for the audiobook. It’s not the easiest book to follow and, quite honestly, I didn’t care for the main reader of the audiobook. I think they could have done a better job casting it. I recommend reading the eBook version because you can highlight, bookmark, and search for specific scenes you want to refer back to.

I’m honestly a bit torn on how to rate this book. I loved the setting, the imagery, and the atmosphere, which makes me want to give it 5 stars, but there were bits of the story that failed to connect for me, the need for a re-read of an incredibly time-consuming book was a let-down, and I was left with some significant questions after finishing. Are the answers something I missed? Perhaps, perhaps the answers were so steeped in metaphor that they were invisible to this reader. Either way, I like to think that I’m reasonably intelligent and that if I didn’t pick up on it in a re-read, others probably wouldn’t pick up on it in the first read-through. Those are pretty significant problems in my opinion and they make me want to give this book 2 stars. So, I’m going to split the difference and rate it at 3 stars. I liked it, and while I don’t know if I would recommend it, it certainly provides plenty of opportunity for discussion.

Side note: In the story, Mirabel orders a Honey Stardust off Starbuck’s secret menu, which is basically an Earl Grey with soy milk, vanilla and honey according to her. While it doesn’t actually exist on the Starbucks menu (secret or otherwise), there is an online company called The Simply Bookish Co. with tea blends inspired by books that offers this as a blend. I ordered a sample of the Honey Stardust and plan to drink it during our book club, so I’ll let you know what I think of it! They also have another blend inspired by this book called Drink, a blend inspired by the liquid Zachary drinks after rolling the dice for his entrance exam.

Have you read this book? Maybe you’ll have the answers to my questions. I’d love to hear what you think!

Join the Discussion!

If you’re looking to discuss this book with someone, join Brikena, a member of our fiber community, and me on Tuesday, November 30th at 7pm CST on Instagram Stories Live. We will be chatting and getting to know Brikena, working on some projects, sipping some bevies, and talking about all the fantastical things from this book. I hope to see you there!

Update! Catch the BW+S Book Club replay for this on either Instagram or YouTube!

Brikena L.

Brikena is a medical technologist by profession but loves reading. Currently, she’s reading her way through Reese’s book club books. She likes to knit, especially scarves, likes to travel, and to listen to Latin music. One of her New Year’s resolutions was to learn Spanish and she’s made great progress with Duolingo. She’s visited countries in Europe and Asia and would like to add Australia, Africa, and South America to the list as well. One of the resolutions for next year is to learn to crochet. 

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