The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern has been one of this year’s most anticipated releases, largely due to the popularity of Morgenstern’s first novel, The Night Circus. I didn’t love the Night Circus as much as some other people, but I was really curious about what Morgenstern would dream up in her second novel.
The Starless Sea tells an inventive story dedicated to a love of stories and peppered with a range of literary references (or at least literary name-checks). It’s a book filled with fable-like stories, intertwined tales and vividly imaginative places and things.
If you liked the Night Circus, be forewarned that the Starless Sea is a different sort of beast, though it shares some similarities and tries to capture the same sense of magic and anticipation. Morgenstern showcased her ability to conjure up dreamy and fantastical imagery that engages the senses in the Night Circus, and continues that with the Starless Sea. But the Starless Sea is a more ambitious novel, I think, than the Night Circus.
As discussed in the next section, there’s a number of things I didn’t think ended up working in the Starless Sea, but even still there’s a lot to be said for what Morgenstern was trying to do with it. From the ruminations on the permanence or impermanence of stories, to the wildly imaginative world and the many tributes to power of stories and the imagination, Morgenstern has offered up a unique and inventive follow-up to her debut novel that many will find thought-provoking and inspiring.
When I first started to see how the inter-related myths and fables of the book plays into the plot, I was delighted. It felt interesting and unique, and I thought it was fantastic. However, at some point the plot gets consumed by its own conceit, and the characters get lost in the process. Apart from wanting to be with someone they love, very few of the characters have any other motivations or other personality traits. It makes for very flat character arcs and nearly non-existent emotional journeys across a lengthy book.
Initially, the inter-related stories are charming, but at some point it gets overwhelming, and there’s not much to the story beyond that. Towards the latter half of the book, there’s a lot of characters sort of just wandering around aimlessly, speaking in metaphors and riddles and things happening for no apparent reason. Even once you get the gist of what the general idea is, it continues to drip-feed cryptic half-explanations and random plot events across hundreds of pages. There doesn’t seem to be any story-based reason for many things to happen or for the information to be dragged out across the chapters or for characters to withhold information, they just do.
On a more substantive level, I think the aimlessness of the plot means that the book undermines a lot of its own message. One of the ideas it explores is the relationship between choice and “fate” and how that plays into a story. In the Starless Sea, there’s junctures where Zach has to choose certain paths. But when Zach, a character with very few discernible motivations, chooses a doorway for no particular reason, to me that says very little about either choice or fate. Instead, it just reminds me that characters wandering around randomly doing random things don’t make interesting stories and is kind of pointless.
As a point of comparison, think about the Harry Potter novels where Harry wonders whether he was sorted into the correct house. The sorting hat thought Harry was suited for Slytherin (indicating one personality type), but Harry chose a different house by force of his own will. The point being that ultimately you decide the person you want to be. This is a much more powerful illustration of fate and choice than if a nondescript character randomly chooses a house for no reason.
The book relies on extremely heavy-handed ways of trying to make its points or make connections between things (possibly because it doesn’t trust its reader, or possibly because the story isn’t told in a way where it would be coherent otherwise). It explicitly reminds you that something is a metaphor or that someone has “chosen a path” or emblazons symbols on everything to try to form connections between things. By the end, I was inwardly groaning anytime I saw the words “bee”, “sword”, “door” or “key”. I’m not kidding, those four words come up over 1,500 times in this book.
Read it or Skip it?
Morgenstern explores some genuinely interesting (albeit a bit meta) ideas about storytelling and tries to structure the story in a unique and imaginative way. But the lack of a strong emotional beat, the aimless plot and the overwrought execution (I think this is best described as being “over-engineered”) drags the story down. Instead of being whimsical and adventurous, there’s a tediousness to the whole exercise and a lot of it feels extraneous.
The Starless Sea is supposed to be a book about storytelling, but in its quest to seem clever, it forgets what good storytelling is about. That’s perhaps a bit harsh, but I was honestly pretty frustrated as the story wore on.
Still, even if I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I hoped I would, I have a hard time dismissing it entirely. I think Morgenstern was trying to do something interesting with it, and there’s a lot of inventive elements in the story that she deserves credit for. I like when people strive to do creative things in storytelling, even if it doesn’t always pan out. For this reason, I would consider reading another book of hers in the future.
See The Starless Sea on Amazon.
The Starless Sea, Explained!
Spoilers start here! Don’t read this section unless you’ve already read the book!
In really simple terms, what exactly happens in this book?
From what I can gather, Fate falls in love with Time, which causes a disruption in Time so Fate must be destroyed (by the Owl King). However, a mouse saves Fate’s heart from the Owl King. The mouse approaches the the story sculptor (Fate in a different form) and asks her to keep something safe (the heart). She wraps it up in a nested stories and dead ends so no one can find it (which is basically the story that we are reading about this sanctuary).
Within the confines of that nested story, the Moon falls in love with an Innkeeper. She convinces Death to spare him, and asks Time for a space detached from time so they can be together. Time agrees to help, but on the condition that the Moon helps Time and Fate find a way to be together. So, the Moon has the Innkeeper store Fate’s heart safely (so the heart is stored within these nested stories and is then stored within the frozen-time area of the Inn).
The characters in this story take on many roles, the same way that characters and prototypical figures in stories often do. Allegra, Rhyme, Dorian, etc. are all characters in this story. Allegra is the villain, founder of the Collector’s Club, who both seeks to prevent people from entering and wants to forestall its ending. The Keating Foundation works in opposition to the Collector’s Club. Simon and Eleanor are part of the story, too.
Within these nested stories is one about a sword (and its duplicates) that is created to kill the Owl King (which basically means ending the story). It and Zach are the keys to ending the story.
Zach arrival as the Key is actually the end of the story. Through the book, we discover the story as he does, but he is really the beginning of the end. When Dorian finally goes into the Starless Sea and removes the heart from the Inn, things start to unravel and become untethered. When Dorian finally stabs Zach, it ends this story, but by giving him Fate’s heart, it starts a new one.
Anyway, this is my interpretation of events. I don’t think everything really fits together neatly, and because of that, you could make a bunch of arguments for different variations of what the plot really is. Feel free to leave your thoughts below.
For a fuller summary of the plot, you can find that here.
Who is the Owl King and what does the Owl King represent?
Erin Morgenstern has stated that this was purposely left somewhat open-ended. As she was writing it, she tried different variations on what it should “mean”. The character of Simon does explains that “who” the Owl King is changes from story to story, and he describes the Owl King as type of phenomenon.
I (as in me, the writer of this blog, not an “official” statement from Morgenstern or anyone associated with the book) think you can see it as something that brings change, a powerful force, an ending or a new beginning in a story — but perhaps others may have their own interpretation.
What are all the characters with dual/multiple roles in The Starless Sea?
The Pirate is the Keeper. He is also Time.
The girl is Mirabel. Mirabel is also the painter of the doors and the little girl who grows up in the Harbor. She is also Fate and the Story Sculptor. She was taught to paint by Allegra, who was originally an acolyte in a Harbor.
The mouse-like man (who commissions the sculptor) is the mouse who steals Fate’s heart from the Owl King.
The girl who finds a door on the forest floor is Eleanor and she is Mirabel’s mother (the father is Simon).
Simon inherits a key from his late mother (Jocelyn), and he is the man lost in time. Jocelyn Keating was part of the Keating Foundation which is dedicated to building a place that exists out of time and bringing people into the Starless Sea.
The acolyte who can’t speak is Rhyme.
The acolyte who is a painter that gives up her eye instead of her tongue is Allegra. She realizes she has made a mistake by joining. She later founds the Collector Club dedicated to destroying the doors.
The boy in the library who is tested by being asked to watch a book by a lady in a green scarf is Dorian. He becomes a Guardian.
Zachary is the son of the fortune teller (Madame Love). He is also the Key to ending the story. He is destined to wield the Sword that will kill the Owl King (essentially, ending the story), though Dorian is the one who stabs him.