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Summary and book reviews of The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

The Starless Sea

by Erin Morgenstern

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern X
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
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  • Published:
    Nov 2019, 512 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Mark Anthony Ayling
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About this Book

Book Summary

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Night Circus, a timeless love story set in a secret underground world - a place of pirates, painters, lovers, liars, and ships that sail upon a starless sea.

Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student in Vermont when he discovers a mysterious book hidden in the 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. Bewildered by this inexplicable book and desperate to make sense of how his own life came to be recorded, Zachary uncovers a series of clues—a bee, a key, and a sword—that lead him to a masquerade party in New York, to a secret club, and through a doorway to an ancient library hidden far below the surface of the earth.

What Zachary finds in this curious place is more than just a buried home for books and their guardians—it is a place of lost cities and seas, lovers who pass notes under doors and across time, and of stories whispered by the dead. Zachary learns of those who have sacrificed much to protect this realm, relinquishing their sight and their tongues to preserve this archive, and also of those who are intent on its destruction. Together with Mirabel, a fierce, pink-haired protector of the place, and Dorian, a handsome, barefoot man with shifting alliances, Zachary travels the twisting tunnels, darkened stairwells, crowded ballrooms, and sweetly soaked shores of this magical world, discovering his purpose—in both the mysterious book and in his own life.

BOOK I

SWEET SORROWS

Once, very long ago ...

There is a pirate in the basement.

(The pirate is a metaphor but also still a person.)

(The basement could rightly be considered a dungeon.)

The pirate was placed here for numerous acts of a piratey nature considered criminal enough for punishment by those non-pirates who decide such things.

Someone said to throw away the key, but the key rests on a tarnished ring on a hook that hangs on the wall nearby.

(Close enough to see from behind the bars. Freedom kept in sight but out of reach, left as a reminder to the prisoner. No one remembers that now on the key side of the bars. The careful psychological design forgotten, distilled into habit and convenience.)

(The pirate realizes this but withholds comment.)

The guard sits in a chair by the door and reads crime serials on faded paper, wishing he were an idealized, fictional version of himself. Wondering if the difference between pirates and thieves is a matter of boats and hats.

After a time he is ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Morgenstern's novel—littered with knowing references to a slew of beloved storytellers such as Maurice Sendak, C.S. Lewis, Susanna Clarke and Raymond Chandler—is a story lover's utopia, a joyful celebration of reading and language, an unconventional meta-confection as enigmatic as it is enthralling...continued

Full Review Members Only (652 words).

(Reviewed by Mark Anthony Ayling).

Media Reviews

NPR
Morgenstern does build a lovely, haunting, suggestive mythography, but it ends up competing with her narrative in ways that didn't quite work for me. What did work for me, deeply and wholesomely and movingly, was the whole affect of the book, its warmth, its helpless love of storytelling and beautiful, polished fables...Take your time with it, as you would an expensive cocktail or a warm, honeyed bread. It's a lot bigger from the inside.

Popsugar
[A] gorgeously written epic love story, filled with magic and mystery.

Good Housekeeping, Best Book of 2019
From the author of The Night Circus comes a wildly fanciful lark that has all the hits: mystery, love, libraries, Harry Potter references, and pirates. It’s a complex, darkly beautiful story with some of the most inventive storytelling we’ve read all year.

Time
A mystical adventure in an enchanted universe… The novel is not simply a quest narrative – it’s also a meta-examination of stories that demands the reader’s patience – and then rewards it.

Entertainment Weekly
A page-turner...It's unlikely [The Night Circus fans] will be disappointed by this sweeping follow-up, which unfolds an epic romance within a secret underground world of lost cities, handsome pirates and endless puzzles to be solved.

The Guardian (UK)
Assuredly beautiful… The novel reads like panel after panel of mythic illustrations… It demands that its readers interpret it in an older way; the way we read The Faerie Queene…Well-written…The novel’s scope and ambition are undeniable.

New York Times
[A]n abstruse series of fragmented fables...Morgenstern’s attempt to mingle a dozen or so narratives into an intertwined myth is strangely devoid of tension for a book in which a nameless woman’s tongue is cut out on Page 10...The Starless Sea flounders as a novel. As an ode to an aesthetic, however, it is marvelous.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A high-wire feat of metatextual derring-do... This novel is a love letter to readers as much as an invitation: Come and see how much magic is left in the world. Fans of Neil Gaiman and V.E. Schwab, Kelly Link and Susanna Clarke will want to heed the call. An ambitious and bewitching gem of a book with mystery and passion inscribed on every page.

Library Journal (starred review)
A magnificent quest, a sense of unfolding adventure and danger, gold-wrought fantasy, and endless provocation on what storytelling really means.

Booklist (starred review)
Morgenstern's new fantasy epic is a puzzlebox of a book, full of meta-narratives and small folkloric tales...Morgenstern uses poetic, honey-like prose to tell a story that plays with the very concept of what we expect and want from our stories...The massive legion of readers who loved Morgenstern's debut will be clamoring to recapture the magic of that reading experience.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
This love letter to bibliophiles is dreamlike and uncanny, grounded in deeply felt emotion, and absolutely thrilling.

The Toronto Star
The most joyous reading experience I’ve had in recent memory… It is, not to put too fine a point on it, wonderful…a master-class in plotting and prestidigitation…unabashedly romantic…a warm, honeyed bath of words and ideas.

Author Blurb Angie Kim, author of Miracle Creek
A spellbinding novel...I could not put it down, and when I finished, I turned immediately back to the first page so I wouldn't have to leave this magical world. If you believe in the power of stories to transcend time and space, to marry love and fate, read this book!

Reader Reviews

Veronica Earley

FAR BENEATH THE SURFACE OF THE EARTH
I loved this book just as I loved THE NIGHT CIRCUS. Two different reads but Erin Morgenstern is a wonderful writer. THE STARLESS SEA is a book you need to read daily or until you finish it. There is so much going on in this story and it is easy to...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Interactive Narratives in Digital Media

People Playing Computer Games Computer-based role-playing games (RPGs) of the sort Zachary covets in The Starless Sea became popular in the early 1980s with the introduction of Wizardry and Ultima. Both of these games series borrowed liberally from table-top role-playing games, in particular, Dungeons & Dragons, that had become popular during the 1970s. In turn, Wizardry and Ultima would go on to influence later classics such as Dragon Quest (1986) and Final Fantasy (1987).

For a period of time in the 1990s, interest in the computer-based RPG format dwindled. However, despite RPG games experiencing a fallow period, the dialogue surrounding the viability of digital media and video games as a platform for storytelling through immersive, complex, participatory ...

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