a paper star that has been unfolded and refolded
into a tiny unicorn but the unicorn remembers a time
when it was a star and an earlier time when it was part of
a book and sometimes the unicorn dreams of the time before
it was a book when it was a tree and the time even longer
before that when it was a different sort of star
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern is the 200th book I’ve read since I started keeping track of that sort of thing on Goodreads. The Starless Sea turned out to be a great thematic selection for that #200 spot because it is a celebration of reading and stories.
What is it about?
Some chapters are composed of myths and legends about love, about fate and time, about the moon and a man, with bees and keys and stars and owls and swords and rabbits and pirates and doorways and books. Other chapters follow a grad student who, after discovering a book in a library in which he is a character, goes on a bit of a quest to unlock the origins of that book, to decipher the meanings of the myths and legends contained within, and to find a doorway which he had earlier refused to enter.
What is this book like?
The “myth and legend” chapters are written like sophisticated sometimes-dark fairy tales. They are, in a way, poetic, loaded with beautiful imagery and hidden meaning. The “grad student chapters” are like good YA fiction: full of emotion and easy-to-read.
For those that like (wacky) comparisons, if Neil Gaiman and Francesca Zappia collaborated with the aim of writing a novel with a structure similar to that of If on a winter’s night a traveler, the result might be really close to The Starless Sea.
What’s awesome about this book?
This book is pretty. I loved the beautiful imagery contained within its pages. The author is whip-smart and lightly peppers her prose with clever turns-of-phrase and descriptions. The individual myths feel like they could be old folk stories. The language is propulsive, in both the fairy tale chapters and the YA-like chapters, so it’s not a chore to slog through. It has so much symbolism, meaning, and metaphor that it’ll keep a book club quite busy for some time.
When I first started reading it, I fell in love.
What sucks about this book?
This book is exhausting! The plot is composed like a puzzle-box narrative, where the reader does not quite know what is going on for quite some time, with the hope/understanding that all will be revealed later. The puzzle-box narrative is further complicated by the fact that it also loaded with symbolism, meaning, and metaphor, AND deciphering those symbols, meanings, and metaphors is (maybe?) the key to unlocking what’s happening with the plot. It’s a lot to handle in an initial read-through, particularly since the book is almost 500 pages long. I kept waiting for the story to come together, but eventually, I just started looking forward to its end.
Another issue I had with the book is that the characters are kinda drab and underdeveloped. They are mostly passive bystanders who don’t drive the plot so much as observe weird stuff happening to and around them.
The Starless Sea has enough original, weird stuff in it, described in clever, pretty ways, that ultimately compelled me to give it 4 Stars. If I hadn’t lost my patience and my interest in unraveling the book’s mysteries and hidden depths, perhaps I’d have rated it higher.
TLDR: Read this book if you:
- like pretty fairy tales
- don’t care too much about character development
- enjoy a good metaphor/allegory/puzzle
- are a fan of The Night Circus (written by the same author)
TLDR: Avoid this book if you:
- don’t like portal fantasy
- want your narratives to be straightforward
- are looking for something short to read
Acquire an electronic copy so you can easily search for key words.
My Rating: 4 Stars