In Erin Morgenstern’s new novel, The Starless Sea, stories are everything. Our hero, Zachary Ezra Rawlins (the book almost exclusively refers to him by his full name, so shall I) finds himself at a round-table discussion on innovation in storytelling, an event his friend Kat goaded him into guest moderating with her. In an attempt to focus the distracted group, Kat poses a question, asking, “What makes a story compelling?” She gets a range of answers. Change, one student says. High stakes, another offers. Meaning, one suggests. “‘But who decides what the meaning is?’ Zachary wonders aloud.” The reader, one of the students answers. Unfortunately, Morgenstern’s focus on form over function saps The Starless Sea from ever finding any of the weight behind its words it so desperately craves, leaving little more than a pretty facade.
The Starless Sea (not to be confused with video game “The Sunless Sea,” which is referenced in the book) is a high fantasy novel concerning a sort of endless library, a home for books and stories of every kind (inscribed on teacups and spiderwebs, you get the gist) on said eponymous sea. It’s a space somewhat removed from space, that operates on its own sense of rules and decorum. While one can simply walk into The Starless Sea, getting access is often more complicated than that, with different factions trying to control who can get in, and when. No matter what, to get in, you need a door.
Zachary Ezra Rawlins finds one such door painted onto a wall outside his childhood home one day, but passes it by. Lucky for him, he’ll have another chance. After stumbling onto an unlabeled book at the university library one fateful January day, Zachary finds his encounter with the painted door nestled amongst other fables, and thus soon finds himself thrust into an adventure concerning masquerade parties, secret societies, mysterious tinctures, and much more.
All of this sounds exciting, but it’s much more of a whimper than the blurb implies. Zachary Ezra Rawlins doesn’t so much go on an adventure as have an adventure affected onto him, mostly letting himself be guided through the action by his comrades in the dashing and dangerous Dorian & Mirabel. Worse still, the novel flits from this main yarn to a multitude of interlocking stories, either from Zachary’s book or elsewhere, sometimes never to return. This leaves little time for us to settle in with any of the characters, who come across more as a collection of tropes rather than fully formed realizations.
Zachary Ezra Rawlins is surprisingly passive for an adventure novel hero. Most of the time, he’s limited to snarky comments rather than action or inquiry. Few characters fare a better fate, I’m afraid. One character, the antagonizing Allegra Cavallo, tells Zachary (after tying him to a chair and before holding him at knife-point), “You’ve cast me as a villain.” Well, I’d hope I could be forgiven for this assumption. “Are you concerned this might be a trap, Ezra?” Mirabel asks Zachary, before the two of them walk directly into a trap. The Starless Sea attempts to lean into this fabulistic nature in place of nuance, hoping the reader will bridge the gap it creates, while not providing anything more of substance.
This flaw affects The Starless Sea from the big-picture concerns of plot and character down to the minutiae of sentences. It’s a slog to read, even with mostly short chapter lengths. I found myself pulled from the text often, either by pop-culture references (I had to set the book down for a bit after a moment early on, where Kat tells Zachary, “Please, you’re so obviously Ravenclaw.”) or from Morgenstern’s insertions into the story.
Even in the close-third-person the novel is written in, Morgenstern never truly lets her characters off of the leash. Descriptions – of rooms, or sensory information – which are often some of the most beautiful writing in the book, just as often lapse into laziness. “The room smells of a formerly crackling fire and sandalwood and something dark and deep and unidentifiable.” Or: “There are chandeliers, some hanging at irregular, chandelier-inappropriate heights… ” Yeesh.
It’s not all bad news, though. Morgenstern is certainly gifted at rendering a scene, it’s just as if she struggles with determining which details are interesting and useful, and which aren’t. The Starless Sea has refreshing representation of people of color and LGBTQ characters, of which Zachary is in both camps; a nice change of pace from the fables it plays off. There’s a good structure here, I just wish there was some more meat on the bones, some weight behind the words.
As a young writer, I once wondered if beauty and aesthetic were enough to make a compelling work; in The Starless Sea, I have found my answer. The Starless Sea is sort of a novelization of a Tumblr aesthetic board, and if descriptions of fancy cocktails, the coziest reading nooks imaginable, and fables are your thing, you’ll find plenty on offer here to keep you satisfied. It’s just when you go looking for something of more substance that the facade crumbles. Morgenstern sets out to write a love letter, but isn’t sure to whom she should address it to. Instead, it becomes a vague declaration of love to the books of the world, without ever really thinking about why.
The Starless Sea
By Erin Morgenstern
Published November 5th, 2019
Ian is a writer based out of Chicago, and one of the Daily Editors at The Chicago Review of Books. His work has appeared in The LA Review of Books, Input Magazine, The Kenyon Review, Chicago Reader, among others. He is working on a novel. Follow him on Twitter as @IanJBattaglia.