Book Review: The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
“We are all stardust and stories.”
I adore The Night Circus, and have been eagerly anticipating Morgenstern’s sophomore novel for eight years. I really should have tempered my expectations. The Starless Sea is the type of book that, in the beginning, I believed would strong feelings. You should either love it and be completely entranced by the atmospheric quiet of the tale, or be bored to tears by the apparent lack of action and a more common pacing. That’s what I expected when I read the first few pages. Unfortunately, if fell short for me. Instead of either loving or hating it, I mostly just find myself disappointed by it.
“If all endings are beginnings, are all beginnings also endings?”
Morgenstern can paint a picture with words unlike almost any other author I’ve experienced. There is a lushness to her writing that enchants me, and I can see everything she describes. I delight in the worlds she has created. The settings and premise of this book are absolutely fantastic. The idea of a secret world of stories is always a thrilling trope, and Morgenstern had a truly unique take on it that I found fascinating. The Starless Sea and its multitude of past and present Harbors are places that I would dearly love to visit. I swear I could taste the honey and smell the forgotten stories. It sounds like heaven. There were so many small-scale, unique settings within the scope of the Starless Sea that you could explore forever and never stop finding new depths to plumb. Along with its predecessor, The Starless Sea is one of the most atmospheric books I’ve ever read; creating a unique and compelling atmosphere is without a doubt Morgenstern’s biggest strength as an author. If storytelling can be a lullaby, she is one of the best in the business.
“Strange, isn’t it? To love a book. When the words on the pages become so precious that they feel like part of your own history because they are.”
Besides the beautifully described settings, my favorite element of this book was the fact that it wasn’t just one book. In each section, Morgenstern divided the story between Zachary’s current story and a book of fairy tales or a diary or some other book unique to that particular section. The fairy tales that Morgenstern crafted were wholly original and absolutely beautiful. The ideas of the Moon and the innkeeper, of Time and Fate, of the Owl King and his domain, were every one of them lovely and enchanting and thought provoking. Morgenstern created her own mythos, deep and wild and utterly unique, and it fueled the story. If I could somehow find a book of just these fairy tales, I give copies out like candy and would read them over and over again.
“Everyone wants the stars. Everyone wishes to grasp that which exists out of reach. To hold the extraordinary in their hands and keep the remarkable in their pockets.”
If this book was so beautifully written, so original in setting and lore, why didn’t I adore it? My disappointment can be found in two foundational elements: characterization and pacing. Actually, my displeasure stems from a lack of both. The characters were interesting and varied on the surface, but they had no depth. We were told of their depth, of their successes and losses and aches, but we were never actually shown these things. Morgenstern excels at presenting a setting in such a way that her audience can truly visualize it, as I stated earlier. But for some reason, she seems unable to show us a character’s core instead of merely telling us about it. This results in cardboard characters against a stunning backdrop, which just doesn’t really work. There is even very little dialogue in proportion to the amount of exposition.
“Be brave… Be bold. Be loud. Never change for anyone but yourself. Any soul worth its star-stuff will take the whole package as it is and however it grows.”
Also, there never seemed to be any true action; the plot just moseyed from one event to the next. There was never a true sense of tension, which is odd for a story with high stakes, as The Starless Sea is revealed to have. Perhaps part of this comes from Morgenstern’s decision to write in third person present tense? This mixed with high levels of introspection can lead to the story feeling incredibly slow for some and totally immersive for others. Even the various romances felt as if they had no true foundation, which rendered them far less powerful than I believe was intended. I think she tried to make this book more than it is, when the story could have stood just fine on its own had it been allowed to do so.
“We’re here to wander through other people’s stories, searching for our own.”
Above all, this is a story about never passing up an opportunity; about the stories that shape us, whether they’re consumed from outside sources or told only within ourselves; about the importance of actually living your life instead of merely existing. Though the messages are profound, they were weakened by the lack of dimension within the characters. However, the atmosphere and exquisitely rendered settings and incredibly original and lush lore were compelling enough to ensure that this is a book I’ll end up revisiting someday. Perhaps I will see the characters in a different light and be able to include The Starless Sea among my favorites, along with Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. I recommend making sure that you’re in the proper mood for this book, ready for something atmospheric and lovely that meanders instead of races.
“But this is not where their story ends. Their story is only just beginning. And no story ever truly ends as long as it is told.”
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