Book Review: The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

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 Story:

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.

My Review:

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.

Recommendations:

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.

Buy The Starless Sea Here

Buy The Night Circus Here


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Book of the Month: Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

night-circusIt can be dangerous picking books from a list and hoping that they live up to the hype. The Night Circus has appeared over and over on book lover Pinterest boards so I decided it would be worth seeing what the big deal was about. I’m glad to say that this is a book that delivers.

Not too long ago I wrote a post discussing what Magical Realism meant. The Night Circus is a terrific example of magical realism. The story takes place in an ahistorical Victorian London and follows the lives of two young magical proteges. These magicians can perform actual magic and not just feats of illusion. These proteges and their masters create the Night Circus – Le Cirque des Rêves, the Circus of Dreams. A reality defying collection of curiosities that is only open from dusk to dawn.

The circus itself is surreal enough to make for intriguing reading. Among the expected acrobatic acts and contortionists there are tents that are full of the impossible. One is a garden created entirely from ice. Another, a cloud maze where you can fall from incredible heights without the fear of being hurt.

The story weaves it’s way through the lives of two magical proteges. Through the years, Prospero the Enchanter and Mr. A.H. have been locked in a rivalry to prove who is the better, more powerful magician.  Their students, Celia Bowen and Marcos Alisdair are the pawns in a dangerous competition in which they have been groomed their whole lives to play. Except, they are never given the rules of the competition. They must push to find what must be done and are never sure what the next step must be.

My review:

It’s not often when a book takes me by surprise. The Night Circus has an otherworldly quality that makes for perfect escapist reading. I was transported into this alternate world where magic is indeed real and palpable and filled with wonder. The story itself is fresh and full of ideas and creativity that haven’t been seen before, which is a feat in itself seeing how most stories I read are beaten dead from over use.

The best part of the book is the circus itself, the wonder and the thrills contained therein continually change and evolve to captivate and delight both reader and the characters that walk the pages.

I recommend this to anyone who likes magical realism, Cirque du Soleil, and surrealism. For those of you who like their fiction to keep both feel solidly on the ground, this might be a touch cerebral for you.

Like book reviews? Here are a few of my others:

Writer Wednesday: Magical Realism

Welcome to writer Wednesday! Here we will tackle topics of interest to fellow writers and hopefully be interesting to readers of fiction. These posts used to be written over at My Literary Quest but now will be featured here and reblogged there.

Today we will discuss the literary genre, magical realism.

paul-bond-magic-realism

Although it feels like the term “Magical Realism” is fairly new, it has actually been around since the 1920s. As a fantasy writer myself, I wanted to explore this term to better understand it.

The idea of magical realism sprang up first from a German art critic, Franz Roh, who used it to describe art that pushed beyond the surreal, creating intriguing, thought provoking works. This art was known for it’s photographic clarity and focused on the magical nature of the real world.

This art inspired writers to find the same feeling in their works. They aimed to capture the fantastic, mysterious nature of reality. These writers carried these ideas over to Hispanic America where it was embraced and began to evolve. The term “marvelous realism” was born and described works that presented a realistic and pragmatic view of reality that includes an acceptance of the existence of magic and superstition. This is closer to how we define magical realism today.

The 1955 essay by critic Angel Flores titled, “Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction” combines both aspects of magic realism and marvelous realism and brought the genre back to life after it had gone out of style. This increase of interest led to the term magical realism being applied to a new type of literature known for a matter-of-fact portrayal of magical events.

Today, magical realism is alive and well and is probably in more places than you’ve imagined. Popular novels that are considered to fall in this category include: Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.

There are several characteristics that magical realism novels include to a certain extent. These include:

  • Fantastical elements
  • Real-world setting
  • Authorial reticence, meaning that the author withholds explanations about fantastic events, treating them as if nothing extraordinary has taken place.
  • Plentitude, referring to an almost Baroque feel where there is an abundance of disorienting details.
  • Hybridity, where plot lines evolve along multiple planes of reality.
  • Metafiction, where the book acknowledges the existence of its reader.
  • Heightened awareness of mystery, the story isn’t bound to the rules of conventional exposition and pushes for a heightened state of awareness of life’s hidden meanings.
  • Political critique. Due to its foothold in the real world, magical realism is better suited to criticize society, especially the elite.

Final question – is magical realism the same as fantasy?

Yes and no. It depends on how fantasy is defined. Fantasy that takes place on bizarre or alternate worlds is not magical realism. However, urban fantasy can be considered magical realism if the magical elements are known and accepted in the world. Most agreed that epic fantasy is not magical realism due to the universal existence of an alternate world.

That said – the famous Terry Prachett is quoted saying magical realism “is like a polite way of saying you write fantasy.” Although in my opinion, his writing largely embraces the chief tenet of magical realism where the most fantastic elements are taken as normal, or even mundane.

Gene Wolfe said, “magical realism is fantasy written by people who speak Spanish.”

I say magical realism is different, largely because the overall feeling of the work is distinct. Fantasy puts magic on a pedestal and glorifies it, magical realism shoves it under the rug as it explores other aspects of life.

What do you think? Do you write magical realism? Let’s talk about it in the comments!