The Starless Sea is Morgenstern’s second novel coming after the success of her first novel, The Night Circus. I’d read The Night Circus a while ago and remembered loving it, but didn’t know if it would hold up to a reread. Recently, I tried the audio book for The Night Circus (read by Jim Dale!) and it was AMAZING. Highly, highly recommend. Le Cirque des Rêves was just as captivating as I remembered it. All of that is just to say that my expectations for this book were already HIGH, but then the synopsis of this book comes out including secret societies and underground libraries and quests… If it was possible, my expectations rose even higher.
Now, you may have heard some conflicting things about this book. I’ve read some reviews that strongly disliked this book. Let me just say, this book is very different and it’s not one that can be zoomed through (as I typically zoom through books). If I’m really enjoying a book (300-400 page range) I can usually finish it in about three days max (usually less). This book is around 500 pages, so a little longer than my average and it took me almost four WEEKS to read (26 days to be precise). Caveat: I wasn’t reading this book exclusively or reading every single day, also we were in the process of moving house to another state for some of that time. With that being said, however, this is a book that DEMANDS you take your time to read it. If you don’t, you’ll get confused and you’ll miss out on all of the wonderful complexities that this book holds.
The story is made up of several different sections and multiple perspective shifts with interwoven short stories. It’s confusing, especially at the beginning, but after a while I found that I liked the variation of the chapters. It’s amazing to me to think about Morgenstern writing this book. There are just so many pieces to it and I feel that she really masterfully weaves them together into a cohesive tapestry of deliciousness.
There has been a lot of criticism calling this book “boring” and “plotless”. A lot of people have especially had a problem with the main character, Zachary Ezra Rawlins, feeling like he just purposelessly drifts through the story with no development. I strongly disagree on both of those points. First, no this book isn’t what I would call fast-paced, but I wouldn’t call it boring by any stretch of the imagination! The short stories are beautiful, well-written, and frankly not that long compared to Zachary’s chapters. I, personally, was sucked into Zachary’s story immediately. There’s mystery and magic(?) and even a little action thrown into the mix as well. I think that Zachary’s character makes a lot more sense if you remember that he’s a grad student studying video games. He often views his journey as a video game and I think that informs some of the decisions that he makes. He’s not delusional or anything, he doesn’t think he’s ACTUALLY in a video game, but the “aimless wandering” that a lot of people have a problem with makes more sense if you view it from that lens. A lot of exploring type video games have a main quest, side quests, and then a bunch of other random stuff that you can explore. Zachary does a lot of exploring that I guess some people found to be boring, however, I did not.
As a character, I think Zachary undoubtedly develops. He’s not the same boy that he was when he first encountered a door painted on the side of a wall. He starts the book as a 2D character, but ends as a fully fleshed out being. There are decisions that he makes towards the end of the book that he simply would not have made at the beginning. Zachary does not finish the book as the same person that he was.
I’m finding it really hard to put into words EXACTLY what I loved so much about this book. It’s just so cozy. I loved all of the little stories and I loved when the pieces started to overlap and click together. Some people had a problem with the ending, but I thought it was perfect and right and fit the book precisely. The writing was beautiful and whimsical and the setting of the Harbor was just as magical as Le Cirque des Rêves, in my opinion. And then The Kitchen. Oh how I loved The Kitchen. This is the kind of book that you want to start over immediately after finishing because now you finally get it and can pick up on things that you missed the first time.
I’ll just end this review by pleading with you to not let the negative reviews scare you away. Give it a try and if it’s not for you, that’s fine. But where others found this book boring, I found it captivating. Where others found the descriptions to be too long, I found them to be beautiful and evocative. Just one warning: because of all of the interweaving stories I’d probably not recommend this as an audio book–I think it would just be confusing. But as a physical book or an eBook? Magical. You will never find another book like this.
Overall Rating: 5
Sexual Content: Mild