“Change is what a story is, Ezra,” Mirabel says. “I thought I already told you that.” – The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern
As an avid reader and writer, and someone obsessed with stories and characters in general, I’m always taken aback when someone asks me what my favorite book is and I’m not exactly sure what to say. After reading a book containing characters whose lives revolve around stories – those in their heads, those they keep close in their coat pockets, and those they protect in an underground labyrinth full of books, cats, myth, bees, honey, keys, painted doors, swords, loss, love, hope, and much more – I think I know my answer (and I think it will be my answer for quite a long time): The Starless Sea.
As I write this in late June 2020, I can easily say we are living in strange and uncertain times, and anyone who’s around will not need any further explanation as to what I mean. I’ve spent the last year being anxious about moving to a new city, about my new job, about a pandemic, about social justice and inequality, and also about my anxiousness, just to name a few things. When I took the week off from work to visit the beach with family (socially distant, of course), I had one goal in mind: to finish the book I’d been waiting nearly ten years to read. I’d loved the fantastical trip Erin Morgenstern took me on in her novel, The Night Circus, in early high school, and I’d been waiting for her to take my on my next adventure ever since.
The Starless Sea definitely did not disappoint.
Let’s start with the characters. From pink-haired Mirabel, who’s also Fate and dresses like Max from Where the Wild Things Are at a literary masquerade and doesn’t want the underground library to be called magical, to Eleanor, who falls through the memory of a door on the forest ground and falls more in love with a man who becomes lost in time trying to find her, and Allegra, who prizes her painted doors and the sparkling ballroom on the shores of the starless sea so much that she does just about anything to protect it (even if it means destroying it), The Starless Sea is full of an eccentric cast of colorful, memorable characters. But they aren’t all so intense and whimsical; the main story follows Zachary and Dorian as they attempt to find belonging in this (to quote Dorian) “world beneath the world beneath the world.” While also memorable, little characteristic details make these two relatable as they navigate their own journey of self-discovery, love, and fables that are actually history and the future and their own stories all at once. Zachary likes sidecars with no sugar if there aren’t any fancier cocktails, regrets decisions he made in the past, and quotes The Legend of Zelda by saying, “It’s dangerous to go alone,” whenever there’s a sword involved. Dorian hates shoes, speaks Mandarin and Urdu, and is tired of losing things.
In similarly subtle nuances pertaining to their relationship, and in a way that I remember finding brilliant in The Night Circus, Morgenstern uses subtlety to create intensity – how the characters respond to each other, how Zachary doesn’t take off the sword necklace that Dorian gives him to blend in when entering the Collector’s Club for a covert book-theft mission, how Dorian continues the story of the innkeeper and the Moon after Zachary says he wanted there to be more to that particular (non-fiction) fable. But Zachary and Dorian’s relationship isn’t the only one I treasured. How Morgenstern created an elegant, realistic, and meaningful relationship between Zachary and, for lack of better words, the personification of Fate, I do not know (but she really did). After seeing her dressed for the wild things, they make a pact: Zachary gets to call her Max, but only if Mirabel (the most recent incarnation of Fate) can call him by his middle name (Ezra). As small a detail as it is, this continues throughout the entire novel, adding a note of frivolity and familiarity that you might find in a real-world relationship.
While I appreciate the non-traditional, subtle love story between Zachary and Dorian, and the fierce females (one of them pink-haired) that tackle time and mystery and rising honey seas, I’m not even sure how to do justice to the mythical world that Morgenstern creates, and how she creates it. There’s an elevator to take you underground into the labyrinth, honey, and mystery, followed by a test consisting of a drink that changes with each drinker and dice rolling predicting your fate based on a bee, a key, a sword, a heart, a crown, or a feather. There’s an inn at a crossroads that moves to a tethered space in the timeless starless sea (and by that I mean, not held within the bounds of time) once the innkeeper falls in love with the Moon. There’s story time in the dark, a dollhouse universe with paper seas, mints that tell stories about knights and broken hearts, a tale of love and loss between Fate and Time (otherwise known as The Keeper), and books made from an “Archive” that hold details to the protagonists’ lives.
The Starless Sea created a world I feel as though I actually traveled to and that I already miss. A world of booklovers for booklovers. A world much more than that. As the world’s own fables say, it’s a place “to Seek & to Find”. And like Dorian said, when Zachary asks him why he thinks people came to this mythical world of bees and keys and painted doors: “In search of something. Even if we didn’t know what it was. Something more. Something to wonder at. Someplace to belong. We’re here to wander through other people’s stories, searching for our own.” For me, the icing on the already impeccable cake is how Morgenstern reveals this world beneath the world beneath the world to the reader – in bits and pieces out of order, through page-long snippets and short fables that the characters read themselves, in a collection of stories that stand alone beautifully but strung together create something even more grand. By piecing together these pieces one by one just like Zachary and Dorian, the reader, too, becomes engrossed in (and may even find they belong in) the shores of the starless sea.
I’m not sure how to put this in a way that doesn’t sound dramatic, so I’m just going to say it. In this time of change, uncertainty, and anxiety, this book itself was my own painted door to the starless sea. It gave me a place to escape to, something to believe in, and a story to hold on to. Through dialogue like the featured quote, through Mirabel’s steadfast belief that something would be different this time (once Zachary ventured underground) than all the other times that ended in loss, and through discovering in the end (*spoiler alert*) that our main characters were aiding, without their knowledge of doing so, in bringing about the beloved story’s end so that a new one can begin, The Starless Sea paints change, endings, and beginnings in a wise and hopeful light.
I’ve loved reading for a long time, and I’ve always attributed my passion for writing to a book I read in middle school. But every so often another story comes along to rekindle the spark and remind me exactly why it is that I hold the written word so dear, and this is certainly one of them.