Read: January 2020
Author: Erin Morgenstern
Length: 512 (hardcover) | 18 h 37 m (audiobook)
Selected By: Elle Tea
“Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student in Vermont when he discovers a mysterious book hidden in the stacks. As he turns the pages, entrances 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.”
Let me preface all of this by stating that I really, truly enjoyed Morgenstern’s previous novel, The Night Circus. It’s also incumbent upon me to notify our readers that, though this was my selection, I did not – I could not – finish it. I managed to get through almost half of the novel – almost right at a perfect 50% – before I called it… but called it I did.
The main thing, the only thing I can really say with any sort of conviction about this selection, is that it is full of words. But this is the gist of the problem with this novel: all books are full of words, words are the foundation of every story, but… but that’s not all they are. Whatever story The Starless Sea wanted to tell gets lost beneath waves of words, leaving nothing but words – soooo maaaaaany words. Five-hundred-plus protracted pages of words being words and nothing but words. Prized and pretty words, true. Beautiful words, gorgeously laid out and presented words.
But just words.
Morgenstern is really great with words. Her skills as a wordsmith exploded into my life with The Night Circus, a tale which many who disliked it also cited as being too verbose. But, as I mentioned at the beginning of this review, I loved it. And at the end of all of those words – hell, even only a few chapters into all those words – I could tell you, “This was a story about two opposing forces in a fictional, magical Victorian world who, despite everything, still fall in love. And there’s a pretty fantastical, absolutely amazing circus that’s basically like another character in and of itself, the performers of which are also an intriguing cast with their own stories.”
I don’t know what the hell The Starless Sea is really about. And that’s no sort of position to be in when one is halfway through a novel. There is a book within this book, a collection of short stories that are actually pretty interesting if left to their own devices and may have made a perfectly lovely book in and of themselves… but they’re not left alone – instead, they’re interwoven and locked within this giant sea of words, an ocean of words that mean nothing, deep and lovely words which take you no where. Morgenstern knows words… but even she can’t force them to perform if they don’t want to, and clearly the words within The Starless Sea could not be contained. They’re wild words, running amok page after page after page.
I’m also not sure how I feel about Morgenstern’s protagonist. I firmly believe that authors of fiction – much like screenwriters and actors of all sorts – are in the business of make-believe, so it’s perfectly acceptable for an author of one gender, race, ethnicity, culture, religion, or sexuality to write from the viewpoint of another. On the other hand, I am sick to death of being force-fed characters who have been contrived so obviously, deliberately cherry-picked and trotted before us only to have their plucked-out details have no bearing on anything, really. The author of The Goblin Emperor irritated me for feeling it necessary to wax ecstatic on the half-breed status of her hero while failing to understand and address at all what impact such a status would have on his growth as a character. And now we have Zachary Rawlins, a gay male twenty-something attending an Ivy-league college in Vermont with emphasis on media entertainment (specifically: video games). And none of that means anything, and it has no bearing on anything.
It’s just more words in a word-soup.
When I finally gave up, I described The Starless Sea as follows, and I think it still applies and is the best way I have found to describe how this selection left me by its end – or by the halfway point I am considering the end: The Starless Sea is like the It’s a Small World ride at Disneyland, with all of its characters and dazzling lights and colors and cheerful, catchy songs… and while you may be smiling by the end, you’re not entirely sure why, nor are you really sure about what the hell you’ve just seen, and all that’s left is a niggling suspicion that the characters with which you were inundated for approximately 13 1/2 minutes are comprised completely of stereotypes.
I don’t know what this novel is about. I have a sneaking suspicion that it is about nothing at all. But it surely does read prettily. So… if you just like the drive and don’t care much about your destination, this is definitely going to be the book for you.
Thus far, Morgenstern has had one hit (The Night Circus) and one miss for me (The Starless Sea), so I do plan to still give her next book a go.
Elle Tea’s Favorite Character(s): No one.
Elle read the Amazon Kindle edition of this selection.
I admit it I only completed 45% of this book most of which was while walking on a treadmill. Walking on the treadmill allowed me to stay awake to read the 45% that I completed because it made me sleepy.
I did not care for the story that followed Zachary. I think the book for me would have been better if it had just been a compilation of short stories. I actually really enjoyed several of them and then we would resume with Zachary which went NOWHERE. I don’t know what his purpose was but hopefully you find out at the end of the story. I will never find out unless I meet someone that made it all the way through or hey maybe one of our followers finished it and wants to tell us how it ended. Wait! I just remembered there is this thing called the internet. I can Google the ending. Yep that’s what I’ll do if I find some time to bring forth the will power to find out the ending of the story.
I liked the girl in the bunny mask the best. She seemed to be in one of the short stories and she liked exploring. She also was able to be a different person when she was wearing the mask. One that she seemed to like better. That’s all life is right? Just wearing different masks. What’s your favorite? My favorite would be something innocent to cover up the leviathan beneath and just fool everybody until one day Venom shows out and poof gotcha.
I don’t have too much to write. I would give this author another chance since I liked The Night Circus and this one was well written just lacking a story. Maybe the next book can lean towards that Night Circus feel.
BillMo’s Favorite Character(s): The girl in the bunny mask.
BillMo read the Amazon Kindle edition of this selection.
So, this pains me to say, this book was much like watching the show Seinfeld. There was no point. Initially, I was like, “hmmm, maybe she’s going for a Blind Assassin” vibe. No. No. No. There was a point to the Blind Assassin. There was no point to this. Despite being beautifully written, with so much detail, (you would have to have absolutely no imagination to not picture the scenes Morgenstern laid out for us) but the substance was lacking. All in all, it was a convoluted love story, if I’m making my best conjecture at the theme of the story.
Initially I was intrigued that we were going to get a story within a story. However, when it became the third story within a story, I pretty much gave up. Where was it all leading? I get they were supposed to be interconnected, but if there was a moral or lesson to be learned, it was lost on me. In fact, I was disturbed that while each story was interesting in its own way and you’re cheering on each couple, the trials and tribulations were just too much.
As for the character construction, I am a bit ambivalent. Zachary Ezra Rawlins, I would go out on the limb and say, our main character, seems to be little boy lost throughout the novel. Yes, he’s introduced into a world he didn’t know existed, rather abruptly and with a good deal of peril. However, his demeanor is like that of an adolescent boy who has no clue what the hell is going on around him. Morgenstern also seems to have the notion that Zachary is fond of sidecars or other obscure 1920s inspired cocktails is to give us the illusion that he is sophisticated. Eh, not so much. All in all, Zachary is discovering himself, this new world he knew nothing of, and those who inhabit this world. He’s a hapless explorer and we must bear through the fumbling exploration he makes throughout the novel.
The enigma of Mirabel initially made her appear to be a minor character that may or may not aide Zachary along. Her second appearance, as Max, was playful and fun and I quite enjoyed the interaction between her and Zachary. I wasn’t quite sure how to accept her interaction with Zachary’s fortune teller mother (ah, the obligatory gypsy). In the end, I didn’t think too hard about it or even again about it by the end of the novel. Discussing Mirabel any further would be a giant spoiler alert and I have no desire to ruin it for anyone else.
I felt that what Morgenstern attempted to achieve with Zachary by way of sophistication, we get the gruff and oddly refined version of what she was striving for in Dorian. Dorian is a bit of a rogue and I can appreciate his demeanor and attitude from the start. While I was curious about what was in store for poor Zachary, it was Dorian I was cheering on throughout. Would he live? Would he die? Would he find his true love? Alas, do I really care?
As for the antagonist. . . Allegra Cavallo. Aye aye aye. Her heart is in the right place, but her head most definitely is not. However, she felt like a caricature. In fact, I kept picturing Cruella DeVille and in the end, her motivation still made no sense to me.
Again, wonderful job in building the world and giving us some lovely visuals. However, the content of the story is just as important as the imagery. Unfortunately, this falls considerably short for me, because I really wanted to love it and I just don’t. If I one must pick only one book to read by Morgenstern, I would strongly suggest The Night Circus instead. Definitely more bang for your buck.
Narration† Review: Dominic Hoffman was excellent reading the Zachary Ezra Rawlins storyline; Dion Graham was excellent reading the Sweet Sorrows storyline; Bahni Turpin reading excerpts from the Secret Diary of Katrina Hawkins made me want to shoot myself; Fiona Hardingham was excellent reading The Ballad of Simon and Eleanor; Allan Corduner was excellent reading Fortunes and Fables; and Jorjeana Marie was excellent reading Another Place, Another Time.
Esbe’s Favorite Character(s): Mirabel & Dorian.
Lady Esbe listened to the Audible edition of this selection, narrated by Dominic Hoffman, Dion Graham, Bahni Turpin, Fiona Hardingham, Allan Corduner, and Jorjeana Marie
† Narration “cup” scores do not count towards the overall average score of the selection itself.