I know a lot of readers who struggled with this latest novel from Erin Morgenstern, author of the much loved and lauded The Night Circus. I listened to The Starless Sea as an audiobook and as the story is told from different people’s perspectives, the different voices really helped my head to differentiate the stories and then to put them back into the whole. This is a very clever book, maybe too clever, as it is hard work to keep all the narratives together. The novel takes the form of a myth, with intersecting fairytales that connect with the present day.
Deep beneath the earth there is a starless sea and within its shores, and the labyrinth that guards it, secret stories are kept. Secret portals, taking the form of painted doors, can take you there, and a secret society guards its story collections, and someone is destroying the portals, one by one.
Zachary Ezra Rowlins did not open his door and he finds a book of myths that tells his story. A bee, a sword and a key are the clues he must follow and into his life comes a storyteller, Dorian, a pink-haired painter Mirabel, and the mysterious Allegra. And all through the novel a timeless love story plays out, over and over again. And then Zachary goes missing.
It is not really a classic fantasy but I loved the mythical nature of the stories, the intermeshing and playing with time, and the timelessness of the lost lovers searching for each other. It has a video game feel to it for me. The players circle, take one path and end up in another story, then double back to take another path and then another and one wrong move can mean all is lost.
Morgenstern has given us a very different novel to The Night Circus and one that challenges the norms of the fantasy genre. Definitely not an easy read but one for you if like mythical writing, can suspend quite a lot of practical beliefs, and accept that separate beautifully written unexplained myths can come together as whole. I mean, really, a sea of honey and talking bees? There is no logic to The Starless Sea and unlike other fantasy novels the world-building is not complete.The storytelling reminds me of Dianne Setterfield’s Once Upon a River which I have previously reviewed. The words flow, sometimes as slowly as the sea of honey at the base of the labyrinth and Morgensten’s constant disrupting of time, while challenging for the reader to hold onto the storyline, kept me constantly guessing about where the story was going to go which in turn kept me turning the page. I found myself constantly second guessing who was betraying who, and concentrating really hard to realise the connections – all of which are definitely there!
The Guardian reviewer Natasha Pulley described the book as infuriating in her review as it did not follow accepted rules but that is what I liked about it. So readers beware. This novel is not for everyone but if you enjoy good writing, challenging norms and love myths then this one is for you.
Jane Cowell, CEO Yarra Plenty Regional Library