Book Review: The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern Is A Lyrical Metafictional Dream

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BY March 15, 2020

Erin Morgenstern first captured the hearts of fantasy readers around the world with her debut novel, The Night Circus. It began as Morgenstern’s NaNoWriMo project, and went on to win the Locus Award for Best First Novel. Eight years later Erin Morgenstern has published The Starless Sea. Her second novel is a lyrical, romantic work of metafiction. In this review, we will dive deep into The Starless Sea

“Far beneath the surface of the earth, upon the shores of the Starless Sea, there is a labyrinthine collection of tunnels and rooms filled with stories. The entryways that lead to this sanctuary are often hidden, sometimes on forest floors, sometimes in private homes, sometimes in plain sight. But those who seek will find. Their doors have been waiting for them.” – Synopsis from the author’s website.

Erin Morgenstern Author Erin Morgenstern | Photo by Allan Amato via Penguin/Random House

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

The Starless Sea centers around Zachary Ezra Rawlins, who is a pretty typical 21st century hipster dude. He is a grad student at a liberal arts college where he studies video games. He is incredibly referential, constantly quoting genre movies and books. Zachary Ezra Rawlins is also hyper self-aware, lonely, seeking human connection and meaning to his life. He is an archetype of modern society that the book will both reinforce, and subvert. While reading this book, I identified strongly with Zachary in a way that was definitely intentional. He is the stand-in for the reader, meant to represent all of us who were raised on a diet of science fiction and fantasy, who learned our fairy tales and mythologies from computer games as much as we did from books.

As a child, Zachary Ezra Rawlins found a door painted on the side of a building. This magical door would have swept him away on a grand adventure, in an underground library that contains all the stories ever written. But he did not turn the knob to enter his portal. He missed his chance then, and when it comes again the magical world he finds is not quite what he expected.

In his college library Zachary wanders searching for stories to escape into, when he finds his key to the secret world. A mysterious book falls into his hands, and within the pages of this old book is Zachary’s own story. He finds himself a character on the page, and sets out to find how this is possible. This journey leads him to a masquerade ball, a secret society, dangerous missions, and inevitably leads him downwards to walk the shores of the Starless Sea.

The Starless Sea Penguin

The Starless Sea Contains Stories Within Stories

The Starless Sea is not just Zachary’s story. It is a multitude of stories that fold in upon one another like an origami star, suspended from a vaulted ceiling. The folds of the stories touch one another, impress words through translucent paper, each story informing and forming the next to come. The Starless Sea is a metafictional fantasy novel. It is a book about books, a story about the power of story.

As Zachary reads the mysterious book that has a chapter detailing an incident from his own life, he also reads stories from the lives of the other main characters. There is the dashing Dorian, haunted by dark secrets. We also meet Mirabel, whose knowledge may be the key to all of the book’s mysteries. On another fold of the page, there are Simon and Eleanor, the time-crossed lovers whose story impacts all of the others. Each of these characters has their own story that plays out to intersect with Zachary’s in vital world-shattering ways. Although they may be considered ‘supporting’ characters, they are all fleshed out and detailed in a way that makes them just as important as the protagonist. 

There are also a series of fairy tales and parables woven throughout Zachary’s narrative. These short stories are laden heavily with metaphor, and dripping with imagery. The moon takes the shape of a woman, and falls in love with a mortal. Another couple meets outside of time, and search for one another across years and stories. Time falls in love with Fate, but they are torn apart by the cruel stars. The layering of the fairy tales over the primary narrative works well in the context of a book where all of the stories overlap, and nestle within one another. Each short story provides a clue to the larger mysteries that Zachary – and the reader – is chasing.

The Starless Sea Erin Morgenstern Photo by Jason D on Unsplash

Erin Morgenstern Brings Stories To Life In The Starless Sea

“Reading a novel,” Zachary says at one point, “is like playing a game where all the choices have been made for you ahead of time by someone who is much better at this particular game.”

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern is many things at once. Predominantly it is a love letter to the power of stories. It is clear that Morgenstern loves a good story, and doesn’t believe they should stay confined to the page. Morgenstern says that she was drew inspiration from video games when writing this book, and it shows in the format of the novel. There are side-quests and major NPCS. Inventory management becomes a vital skill. And the interspersed mythologies feel like dramatic cut-scenes filling in history – before returning the player to the main setting. 

Morgenstern explained her video game inspiration in an interview with EW. “I got really into these games that had these branching narratives. You make one choice and then it affects where the game goes from there.” she explains. “Because I was already playing with stories, the way you have fairy-tale retellings or different variations on myths.  I wanted to combine that very modern video game sensibility with those very old stories.”

This ties back into the metafictional nature of the overall novel. It is reflecting on the nature of storytelling in various forms. And it does so in by exploring stories affect us. And how our choices affect the lives and stories of others. Stories can change your life. Your story can change someone else’s life, in the telling. Together, our stories can build and destroy entire worlds because each novel contains multitudes of worlds.

The Starless Sea Erin Morgenstern book stacks

 

How Does The Starless Sea Work As A Novel?

The novel works beautifully as a work of metafiction. It weaves together the strands of the various stories deftly. Morgenstern admirably attempts new forms of storytelling within the archaic structure of a fairy tale. Although the plot wears a bit thin at points in the novel, the pace moves quickly and the characters are compelling enough to keep you turning the pages. There is not a lot of logic in this universe. The fantasy world often seems to function with a type of dream logic – where the actions make sense unconsciously, but are baffling upon waking.

It is soothing to slip into the honeyed depths of The Starless Sea and suspend your disbelief. To fall in love with the characters falling in love with one another. The Starless Sea weaves a magical spell that takes you away to a world with its own rules and if not all of the metaphoric imagery makes sense, it’s okay. You don’t always have to understand. Just open the door, and let the story take you somewhere unexpected. Good stories can do that, and there are plenty of good stories to be found in the depths of The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern.

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(Featured image via Penguin/Random House)

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Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.

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