TLDR: A book about fairy tales, the narrative here is a magical adventure that follows a university student who finds a moment from his childhood in a random library book. This leads him on a quest to find the Starless Sea, a world of magic. The story is broken up by shorter, fair-tale chapters, where characters include owl kings and magic swords and the moon, at one memorable point. Although this is a fun book, it does seem to focus more on the nature of storytelling rather than the actual story in progress. This can become lengthy, but the different narratives are weaved together well in the conclusion. Character building is occasionally lost because insight is sacrificed for mystery; however, it’s an enjoyable book to engage with simply for your delight in the magic of it all.
Book: The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
Synopsis: Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student in Vermont when he discovers a strange book hidden in the library stacks. As he turns the pages, entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, key collectors, and nameless acolytes, he reads something strange: a story from his own childhood.
Audiobook length: 18 hours 37 minutes
(Reading time: 6 mins)
This story is about stories. It’s an intriguing mix of modern day and myth, where someone in ‘our’ world who yearns for something magical falls right into it. That person is the main character, Zachary Ezra Rollins, who finds himself hunting down the world of the Starless Sea after finding a book about it randomly in the library.
Zachary is a fun character. He’s someone who didn’t open a magic door when it appeared to him, something he remembers when he reads about it in the aforementioned book. The whole novel is Zachary attempting to find his way through a magic door and telling himself he’s not crazy for believing in magic. The book isn’t funny, but Zachary’s character occasionally is, which is likely why I enjoyed his chapters the most. He also, importantly, does not fall into the overpowered chosen one trope that is common within these stories. Then again, that might be because everyone seems like a chosen one in this story, which leads me to two of the most irksome things about this book.
Firstly, between Zachary’s chapters are fable-like stories, set in unspecified worlds and timelines. They are excerpts from Zachary’s in-universe book, which is a nice touch, but they are also plentiful and a little repetitive. They begin to feel superfluous, especially because the epithets are abundantly overused. At one point I was just craving for named characters because honestly, there are so many characters. ‘The key collector,’ ‘the pirate,’ ‘the girl,’ ‘the initiate.’ Ad infinitum.
That’s not to say these chapters were not enjoyable. Many of them are very fun especially because of the mystery of it all. And although metaphor is rife and imagery is not subtle, they culminate at the end of the book in a satisfying manner. They are also not long, which I think is a bonus. However, I think there are slightly too many, and not all of them are useful at the end, thus giving the effect that Zachary’s chapters were shorter than they should have been for a satisfying story.
Secondly, there is a limitless magical ability in this book. The world of the Starless Sea, which Zachary is trying to reach, seems like a place where nothing is impossible, which means everything is pretty low stakes. Although I always want a happy ending in a book, I also think there ought to be challenges along the way that feel as though they could be insurmountable. But of course, this is a magical world, where nothing is insurmountable, and that really works detrimentally to the whole book. This is also contributed to by the lack of development in Zachary’s character. Although he is an enjoyable protagonist to read, much of his backstory and personality are alluded to rather than shown outright, making him sometimes feel like a filler character for the reader, especially when compared to others in the book, which is not a perspective I really enjoy.
The lack of substantiality to Zacahary’s character also makes you feel a little disconnected to the story, which is not helped by the many interludes. Sometimes the act of storytelling seems more integral to the narrative here than any plot, and I’m not going to lie – I’m not sure how to feel about books that are about books.
The second half of the book is where things begin to pick up. Characters begin to have names, mysteries are introduced that you sense could actually be solved and the plot quickens. And that is one of the most difficult things about this book: it’s slow start. For example, at one point Zachary mentions he enjoys video games (that’s what he’s studying at university) as they’re the entertainment most akin to life (I’m paraphrasing), because movies and novels skip the in between, the boring points, whereas with a role-playing game you can wander around and do boring life things. (In the author’s note Morgenstern mentioned this book was kind of inspired by playing Dragon Age: Inquisition which is totally the game I imagined at this point so I do See It). Anyway this comparison is very much how the book plays out – there are no gaps between Zachary’s narrative, even if you need there to be now and again.
I will say that it seems necessary this book begins slowly, as part of its message is not only about how many stories there are, but the way in which we all come to them differently. I am afraid that along with the fairy-tale theme of the book, this comes off as a bit of moralising, if you will, about stories and lives and how we live them etc. This contributes to my perception of this book as not much more than surface level. Although it is fun, and despite the many layers of stories within it, the plot does not feel complex. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but you are given the impression this book ought to be because of the mystery. But the mystery is at times too simple or too mystifying, which means we have to wait to be told what is happening rather than being shown.
I’m trying to make this a positive review, and that’s because I do have many positive feelings! For example, the language at many points in this book is often beautiful. Lines like “the lamp consents to coming close to the opening but not all the way” and “shadows interrupt the light” are worded in such odd ways that it really portrays how the magic is alive in every aspect of the book. There is also an abundance of cats in the Starless Sea world, which is always a plus point.
But I think my fondness for this book is largely due to the time I have spent with it – it took me a while to finish, and thus I became familiar. It’s not a short book, and owing to the sprawling nature of the universe here, it doesn’t feel like it either. The interludes begin to feel gratuitous after a while, but they are fun. It’s the kind of thing you’d enjoy more perhaps on a second read, looking at all the information you are given with foreknowledge, and understanding a little better.
The book or the audiobook?
I know, I know, the real question. Which is better? Well, the audio book.
I was going to dither around with ‘if you prefer to read’ and all of that but the audio book is simply better. This is largely due to the writing style – short sentences and short chapters – which, while reading, failed to fully engross me. However, that’s not possible with the audio book, as it’s narrated by a full cast, and although some of the voices take a bit of getting used to! (the narrator’s ‘girl’ voice, for example), I still much preferred the atmosphere provided there. It also makes the various interludes and story bits more enjoyable, as with a different narrator you know more immediately that this is not part of the main, i.e. Zachary’s, story.
One of the main downsides to the audio book is that it’s long. It’s 20 hours (or, that’s how it advertised on my app, despite the stated running time being a little shorter), which is A Lot. It took me a very long time to finish it, although of course I sped up considerably at the end. Another downside is maybe just a me problem, but I often found myself tuning out a little, which I do not do with books, meaning that I had to rewind and figure out what I missed, which is time-consuming.
The audio narration helps imbibe the story with that fairy tale quality, in a way reading simply does not. Although it is the same words, when reading, I noticed far too often the overuse of epithets, or the short chapters, whereas being told the story it felt natural, all fable-like.
Is it worth reading? If you enjoy fairy tales, then yes.
Is it like The Night Circus? I have not read Erin Morgenstern’s other book, and I don’t know anything about it either, so unfortunately I cannot answer this.