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The Starless Sea Hardcover – November 5, 2019
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As far as the story itself is concerned, my advice to potential readers is check it out at the library first. Then if you really like it, buy a copy. The book started off fairly well, but soon bogged down and devolved into endless repeat descriptions of keys hanging all over stuff, book pages hanging all over stuff, candle wax dripping all over stuff, honey pouring all over stuff, room-furnishing descriptions and lots and lots of alcohol consumption. The main character's liquor and high-carb food preferences were fine for maybe a single explanation, but after myriad references to sidecars, wine, bourbon, single malt whiskey, beer, etc., etc., and various characters' drinking habits, I was colossally bored.
The parts of the book that I did find interesting, such as the possible crossover effects between video games and books in the imaginal realm, were underdeveloped, as were many of the creatures that just seemed to appear and disappear randomly. The basically do-nothing Owls were the worst of the lot. The Owls could have been left out of the story entirely without changing a thing-- they were an almost totally untapped potential.
I enjoyed the Rabbit-Girl and the interweaving of the various individual stories, but after everything started cross-referencing everything else, the link-ups became very predictable.
Basically, what this book needed and did not get was tight and extensive editing. As it stands, it is basically 500-plus pages of word-salad, pretty and poetic in a few places but mostly mind-numbingly repetitive. I am donating my copy to my library to help shorten the reserve list and hopefully save some folks their hard-earned pocket-money.
Reader be forewarned about the glowing reviews.
Starless Sea still displays the author's strength in lovely and emotive writing. She is undoubtedly a creative force. However, she intentionally (I assume) uses certain techniques which are a major distraction. Frequent use of choppy and truncated sentence structure. Frequent use of the main character's partial (or full) name, sentence after sentence. Perhaps I am missing some vogue literary technique, but I might suggest a pronoun here or there?
The story is intentionally disjointed, both with respect to character(s) and time. It makes it difficult to invest in anything, and I felt like I was reading a kaleidoscope of over-the-top Alice in Wonderland descriptions. I'm not trying to be cruel/harsh - this book will have a much more narrow appeal, whereas Night Circus appealed to many. This book was a disconnected mess of thesaurus writing. I wonder if the author decided to go overboard with those things she's undoubtedly heard from readers of the Night Circus over the past eight years. Unfortunately, she went way too far, and the story is simply not that good.
The romance element was unbelievable, largely because it seemed rushed and undeveloped. And...take it as a neutral comment - the same-sex element was a surprise. No - I'm not opposed to same sex relationships, and I understand this critique will trigger some (sorry). In the Night Circus, right there on the back jacket cover, the author describes the romance between a man/woman, played out over years in a unique setting. In Starless Sea...the romance is described more circumspectly on the cover. Admittedly, I may have "passed" on buying Starless Sea had I known about this emphasis. I see nothing wrong or controversial about this. Please don't make it an issue, where none exists. Respectfully, please consider the possibility that someone can be accepting of gay individuals and yet not want to read about them. Readers often want to project themselves into fantasies, even pretending certain possibilities that the story "could happen to them." That's the entertainment in reading fiction, isn't it? So....as someone who has very close gay friends, I see nothing wrong in being honest that I don't want to read about a gay romance, because I don't project myself well into the story. I unapologetically prefer heterosexual romances in a story, because of the reasons I gave above. Just consider this perspective, that's all -
Again, I loved Night Circus. Loved it. Starless Sea is altogether different. I am obviously not the target audience, which I suspect must be those (like many of the characters she tries to develop in the book) who are attracted to deeply intense and fragmented storytelling. I found myself not caring anymore about the characters, largely because of the helter skelter manner in which they are developed. It was difficult to motivate myself to finish many of the chapters, let alone the entire lengthy manuscript. (Where was the editor for this book?).
I imagine Starless Sea will win awards for her creative writing, much like Night Circus. However, sadly for me this book didn't jive - from the story, to the repetition, to the nature of the romance, & etc.
Finally, I reject the positive reviews from people who repeatedly keep writing that you have to read the book more than once to "get it." That is ridiculous. I read Night Circus more than once, because I so enjoyed the story, the characters, the writing & etc. I shouldn't have to re-read a novel because I can't discover a meaningful plot.
Top international reviews
Like with The Night Circus (TNC), I have very mixed feelings about this book. This started off so well and I fully expected it to be one of my favourite books ever, but sadly, as I got further and further into it, I just became confused and distanced from the main storyline and characters. I'm actually upset that I didn't like this more, because the premise sounded so intriguing. I enjoyed the writing for the most part, I devoured the short stories included alongside the main plot and the creativity is incredible. I just think that the author's imagination sometimes ran away with itself, to the point that the reader got left behind and things didn't make sense anymore. I love, love, love abstract concepts in books, but I think Morgenstern has a tendency to make things too abstract, so you're no longer sure what's going on and the plot seems to fold in on itself. I was desperately waiting for the moment that everything came together, but it just didn't and so I wouldn't be able to explain to anyone what the actual plot was, who the main characters actually were as individuals or how or why The Starless Sea even existed.
One of the most noticeable things that contributed to the plot being swallowed and made me less invested, was the length of the story itself. This is quite a long book, but in my honest opinion, it really didn't need to be. It felt like so many of Zachary's chapters were like fillers in between the short stories and I didn't care for them as much. Even though Zachary was the protagonist, I don't think I ever really got him or the other main characters for that matter. They didn't really have anything to them and we were just told things about them, without delving deeper and so I didn't form any attachment to or even understand them or know what their innermost feelings or intentions were. I truly felt more connected to the characters and more grounded in general in the short stories than in Zachary's.
I'd heard that there was this amazing m/m love story in this and so even though I wasn't enjoying it as much as I'd hoped, I was clinging on to the hopes that this relationship could save this a bit for me. However, just like in TNC, the romance didn't do anything for me whatsoever. Like TNC, the romance just came out of nowhere and I was supposed to just except that these characters had deep and meaningful feelings for one another, even though there was nothing in the text to support this. If it hadn't been presented as being so intense and life altering, I could have ignored my issues, but the love declarations and stating that the other person was their reason to go on were hard to overlook.
I listened to the audio book for this one and the narrators themselves were phenomenal, so it made it even more obvious that the plot just wasn't working for me. I know that this review has mainly consisted of things I didn't like, but I really did love the shorter stories in this, the writing and ideas were gorgeous and once again, they reaffirmed my belief that Morgenstern has masses of potential. Therefore, I will still keep picking up any work that she puts out, as I just know that she has the potential to blow me away. I also do want to reread this at some point, as it was a lot to wrap my head around the first time and I hope I'll have a better experience on my next try.
Within the fantastical world that is the setting for most of this novel, the characters spend much of their time wading through honey, and this is what reading this novel felt like much of the time too. It’s slow, cloying, and every page seemed to take effort. Here’s why I was disappointed by ‘The Starless Sea’:
Structure – Contains a number of short tales that relate to a central story. Presented in a random time sequence, the story arcs are constantly disrupted making reading this novel a very staccato affair.
Characters – The author presents characters in different incarnations, however the relationship between them doesn’t always marry with the central theme, and many of the characters motives are left unexplained.
Allegory – There is a fine-line between successful and unsuccessful use of allegory, and much of this novel sits right on that line. Morgenstern uses this device a lot, and I found myself growing rather tired of it by the half-way point.
Symbolism – Another device used throughout. Again, much of it never fully explained within the text. The inclusion of game theory seemed particularly random.
Editing – In my humble opinion, ‘The Starless Sea’ would have benefited from another edit. There were a number of passages that added little to the story.
Mood – This is a dark, occasionally violent, and incessantly depressing tale. With the majority of the imagery intended to disturb, don’t expect this to be a feel-good read.
Resolution – Morgenstern plays with time in this novel, both the overall theme, and the short tales within it are left open-ended. It has neither a defined beginning or ending in the usual sense.
Overall, this was hugely disappointing. Yes, it’s clever in that it breaks the boundaries of genre, and many of the traditional expectations of story structure, but the total effect wasn’t at all pleasing to read.
This is a magical read. Magical. Set in the world of stories with underground libraries and books everywhere guarded by secret members who arrived in this world through magical doors. They came from the world above, through magical doors painted on to walls. Now they guard the stories, the Starless Sea and look after the humans from above who find a magical portal into their world….
In the world above, the main characters is Zachary who finds a door when he’s very small and doesn’t realise until many years later what it meant. At university, he finds a book. This book contains the story about the day a young boy found a door painted on a wall and who didn’t try to enter it. He knows it’s his story and that first shiver of bookish excitement shimmers its way down your neck.
And so starts a journey which takes Zachary to New York’s public library.One of the few real locations in the novel but if people don’t go here to read this book and to see the two stone lions at its entrance, then I will be surprised. What better novel to showcase the magic of NYC library than this one? It’s a portal to the Starless Sea and provides Zachary with a clue to where he must go next in order to find out about his story.
Oh the settings are just magical…there’s a literary masquerade ball, a visit to the Strand bookstore and a very magical walk in Central Park. It’s the wonderful underground cavern of stories that is the most magical and the harbour from which you ride on the Starless Sea. This author has one amazingly vivid imagination and this book was a real treat, an experience.
The book was cleverly written – that prose is like butter on a hot scone – it oozes down to every level and you taste it throughout the experience. Think of marshmallows on a goblet of hot chocolate – as you sink down into it, immerse yourself fully in the reading. The tasting of each and every word gives you the delicious sense that you are swimming in Erin Morgenstern’s imagination…
The story is told in ‘books’ and interludes of stories that at first don’t seem to link to the main thread with Zachary…but they do….oh boy do they. The stories build up to create the world of the Starless Sea and at the same time, Zachary’s descent into this world begins. The flow and mix of the two is a literary lover’s delight.
Watch out for the symbols – the bees, the dagger and the keys are strong symbols of the world below. Doorknobs are very important – I swear you’ll be looking at them very differently from now on. The real treat of this novel was how the fantasy world merged seamlessly with the real – at one point Zach goes to a Starbucks and it’s NOT your usual visit…
This is a book to discover. I’m not even sure I would know where to start describing all the symbols, characters, clues and why the Starless Sea is made of honey. Although this is clearly a fantasy world, it’s not a fantasy novel…. this is so much more than that. It’s the world of your imagination, layers of stories blending and merging into a picture where the more you look, the more you see.
The Starless Sea is a book-lover’s riddle, wrapped in a timeless mystery, inside an literary enigma; and there’s certainly more than one key to unravelling and luxuriating in the world created.
I feel I have to give 5 stars to such an intricately woven web of fantasy, reality and fairy tales.
But did I enjoy it? Not really. It has a disorientating feeling of unreality, with a similar dream-like atmosphere to The Night Circus, but nowhere near as enjoyable. It’s like reading about someone else’s weird dream, jumping about from place to place, without any anchors to reality, eventually not knowing if it’s you or the author who are dreaming.
The Starless Sea is a fantastical book that is an homage to storytelling, a warm gentle hug to readers, and the highest sign of reverence to world-building. It was written for those who seek solace in the pages of a good story, and now it might live forever, just because once it is told it can live within us and therefore be real.
“Be brave,” she says. “Be bold. Be loud. Never change for anyone but yourself. Any soul worth their star-stuff will take the whole package as is and however it grows. Don’t waste your time on anyone who doesn’t believe you when you tell them how you feel.”
Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student in Vermont, and one day he finds a weird book in the library. While reading the enchanting Sweet Sorrows Zach has a wtf moment, because the story is about him. More precisely it is about something that happened to him when he was much younger.
The book is the call to action that propels Zachary to a bizarre adventure in search of the meaning of the book, a long-forgotten harbor on The Starless Sea, and the significance of the bees, sword, and key.
We meet the mysterious Dorian, the mystical Mirabel, the frightening Allegra Cavallo, and the terrifying Owl King. All while jumping between Zach’s reality and the fables written in the many books he finds during his journey.
The Starless Sea has all the elements of a great epic tale, romance and drama, nostalgia and hopefulness, angst and happiness, dread and confusion, mysteries and scary monsters. Beautiful and terrifying beings, things that make great sense and things that will keep you wondering for a long time.
It was truly a gift to be able to read this.
And I’ll keep their stories with me forever.
“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. It’s nice to finally have someone read stories I know so intimately.”
'The Starless Sea' is all about doors and stories. Also about bees and honey, about love and loss, about choices and consequences, and a great deal more besides. If that sounds complex, it is. It's a mystery story with a considerable amount of wandering around in very strange places and with some remarkable characters.
All stories are open to the reader making of them what they will, and this, being a story about stories, is even more open to that than most. What I made of it was a wonderfully clever and beautifully written, sumptuously described and occasionally frustrating (because it veered away from threads I wanted to follow further) celebration of the power and wonder of stories. It probably won't work for everybody, but if it does work, it will probably work brilliantly well.
'You open a door.
What happens next?
I'm going to find out.'
This is strange stuff indeed, and to be honest after being captivated by the beginning, I felt lost in the levels and the stories within stories , and almost gave up, before the ending became clearer, and I found myself glad that I persevered to the end.
In my view, as a reader, It could have done with some tighter editing to keep the story flowing- it does get a little difficult at times
What it is about has levels and layers: from a young man who missed an opportunity for accepting magic into his life to a story within a story, made by stories and each of our own stories interlinked and repeated and varied. It is about a strange and fantastic land of story, with keys and bees and swords, underneath us with an enigmatic facilitator who is fated to die and die again through multitudes of lives, though in each life finding her true love, who is immortal.
And perhaps it is not your cup of tea, but if you love fantastic mystery, love on the side and visually evocative prose, I hope that you like me will want to read this again and again to capture its many layers. I cannot praise it enough. I think Erin is a genius.
If this was based on the writer's imagination that, would be a 5-star review, however, this is not what we are rating the book on.
As a reader, I get what the author is 'trying' to do, sum up the worlds we create or the worlds the books create in us but it doesn't work, for me at least.
The author is desperately trying to be a writer that can sum up the mystery of books and leave us spellbound and for some that may work but it does come across as hugely pretentious due to her first novel being a runaway success, the publishers clearly gave her free reign and that is a dangerous thing to do.
This book rambles on endlessly (you need patience in endless supply), with short stories or tale within a tale about a tale that is pointless and frustratingly so.
The main story ( if you can call it that) is a never-ending whirl of pointless doors, elevators and more doors and strange ( very strange ) musings that actually are meaningless.
My apologies to book darlings everywhere. I really wanted to love this.
I am not sure what I think right now, in a month or so I shall read it again and maybe it will become clearer to me what I think. I’m not into gaming so parts of it are quite esoteric and some of the references miss me and whereas I could relate to the “chessboard” of the Night Circus I find the gaming allusions go over or under my interest entirely. So maybe I’m a bit disappointed but on the other hand I am excited to read it again when I can dwell on the text rather than the story and quell my desire to know the outcome.