The Starless Sea – Erin Morgenstern

The Starless Sea is a love letter to books and readers, a masterpiece of stories within a story where fables of pirates and princesses converge with the saga of Zachary Ezra Rawlins, the son of a fortune teller.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Unpopular opinion: I didn’t like this book much at all.

When I read The Night Circus, I was absolutely entranced by the world Morgenstern had created – I love fantasy and read plenty of it, and yet I don’t think I’d encountered anything like her writing before. Were there were some imperfections? Of course. You could call out her characters for being a little flat and the plot not quite satisfying at the end, but those paled in comparison to the imagination of her traveling circus.

Sadly, even her world building couldn’t make up for the flaws in The Starless Sea.

What I enjoyed

  • Morgenstern’s sheer creativity and sense of imagination! I’m in love with her mind for bringing such fantastical ideas and concepts to life. At her best, she writes like magic is real. Like the world is full of secrets waiting to be uncovered by you, the chosen one. Like hidden doors to library sanctuaries thousands of years old really do exist, and all you need to do is believe in them enough to find them. At her best, she makes you feel that sense of wonder you had when you were 9 and knew fairies and dragons existed.
  • Relatedly, the premise of the whole book is so compelling. Zachary finds a mysterious volume that is somehow about his own life, and he goes on an adventure to uncover its secrets. But…

What wasn’t as good

  • …while the idea behind The Starless Sea is interesting, I felt like Morgenstern’s writing really dipped after the middle. The last third was especially difficult to read, and the phrase “slogging through” comes to mind. Not only was this book unnecessarily long, the ending straight up didn’t make sense to me. (spoilers) Zachary has fallen countless miles in another dimension into a vast, underground, magical cavern bordered by a sea of honey, and has to fight through hallucinations, flocks of hostile owls, haunting voices urging him to essentially suicide, an ice sculpture of his friend Mirabel who is actually Fate reincarnated, etc; only to end his story at a confetti cottage run by flocks of sentient bees and drown to death as the honey sea rises. Except he comes back to life 10 pages later because his love happens to have a spare, beating human heart lying around to put into his chest.
  • Whew. If that doesn’t sound confusing and unnecessarily complex, I don’t know what does. I’m not afraid of trippy books – I love Murakami and Kafka – but this veered from trippy into just offputting.
  • The characters were two dimensional and…well, boring. I didn’t care a whit about the main character Zachary. Morgenstern just never gave us any reason for us to do so – he’s emotionally closed and we don’t get to read his personal thoughts, and instead just read about what happens to him the entire book. The rest of the characters are like this too. Halfway through, Zachary also falls in love with the first other male character introduced after just one kiss, and I actually rolled my eyes in real time. I think Mirabel was meant to be the peppy, spunky, pink-haired accompanist, but she had spunk for maybe three chapters and then seemed to melt into the rest of the book. Possibly the only character I actively liked was Kat.
  • The villain was barely a villain! You can’t have the villain make just four short appearances throughout the entire book! Before I knew it, she was dead. I would’ve laughed if it weren’t so dumb.
  • There was too much focus on the book’s ~aesthetic~ instead of the things that actually make a good book. You know, like storyline and character development. Instead, sentences were chopped up to try and hit certain moods, and parts of the book sounded dreamy and ageless while other parts used modern language and slang. Kind of jarring.

I wish this book hadn’t been as disappointing as it was! I’m still going to read whatever Morgenstern publishes in the future – even if it takes another 8 years – because her imaginary worlds are just that lovely and I can’t wait to see what she thinks of next, but hope her technical abilities will improve enough to do her creativity justice.

P.S. I’m a little amused that even the Harvard Crimson (the school newspaper) wrote a review about this book! And what a deliciously crotchety review. Also love the illustration accompanying the NYTimes review, very fitting.

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