There are books that tell a story, then there are stories that fill books. Then there are stories that are more like an experience than just a tale. The Starless Sea is one of those. It is a story twisted into a daydream that’s wrapped around both reality and the impossible like taffy.
The short answer here is “it’s complicated.” You might be better off reading the Amazon listing than struggle through my attempt to sum some of it up.
While the overarching story is that of Zachery Ezra Rawlins, who is the son of a fortune teller and has a love of books and story even greater than his love for people, there are at least four other stories running along side it. These include at least two which are books that the characters come into contact with which the reader gets to read as well.
When Zachary finds a mysterious book that contains a detailed narration of something that occurs in his own life, he’s both terrified and drawn to find answers. This journey takes him into the magical and inventive subterranean world that is the Starless Sea. Here he encounters people and even more stories and a riddle that envelopes him.
There are glorious masquerade balls, secret societies, pirate boats, infinitely detailed miniatures, and lots and lots of doors. Plus, there is a lovely nonbinary romance that develops so so slowly that it kind of takes the reader by surprise.
I’d been waiting to read this book because I loved the beauty and strangeness of The Night Circus and was hoping for a similar experience. While the writing shared the same sense of beauty, symbolism, and intention, this story (if we can call it that) was far more complicated and layered. It was a story within a story, wrapped in yet another story where the reader was never sure if the characters were real or imagined.
As a writer, part of me felt like this was a lot of wish fulfillment. It’s like Morgenstern took a list of off her favorite whimsical things, all her childhood fascinations, all her loves and things she held dear, and spun a story that could contain them all. While this isn’t a bad thing, it makes for a very abstract reading experience. I wouldn’t be surprised if dinosaurs and exotic train rides turned up behind the next mysterious painted door (they didn’t, but they could have).
Overall I’m sticking to my description of this book that it’s an experience more than a story. Many of the scenes have a feeling that they are meant to be enjoyed in all their glorious descriptions before attempting to understand what they mean or how they fit into the story. There is a lot of trust being placed in the reader to keep reading to figure out what the different pieces mean in the end. And this is one of those stories that you absolutely have to read it to the end to see how all the different threads of the story play out. It’s a long process, but ultimatly worth it.
I’d recommend the Starless Sea to those who love a complicated beautiful read with lots of layers and symbolism. It’s not an easy read, that’s for sure. Many of the pieces don’t seem to fit until often dozens, if not hundreds of pages later when something else pulls the ideas back into the story again. It’s long, and it feels long. This is one of those stories that you want to sink into and take slowly.
I wouldn’t recommend this for someone who just wants a good story and isn’t interested in all the pretty words. It does move slowly and deliberately and for many that might be a turn off. I would also warn those who were hoping for something just like The Night Circus to not try to compare this book to that one as they are very different.
I give Starless Sea 3/5 stars.
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