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What: The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

Who: Harvill Secker

When: November 5th 2019

How: A copy of this novel was provided by Penguin Random House Australia for review.

Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student in Vermont when he discovers a mysterious book hidden in the stacks. As he turns the pages, entranced 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 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.

Since The Night Circus failed me quite abysmally, I am not entirely sure why I was so desperate to give The Starless Sea a try. Perhaps because I wanted to know what it felt like to fall in love with an Erin Morgenstern novel. But, much like the author’s previous book, The Starless Sea was not written for me.

The oddest thing by far about The Starless Sea is that I recognise its brilliance. How Morgenstern was able to keep all the threads of this intricately woven story together is remarkable. And while I did not fall in love with The Starless Sea I can truly see why people did. It is a book about books and stories and the connections between those books and stories and the lives of the people reading them. In all honesty I really wish I had fallen in love with The Starless Sea because it is a very special book.

But there was just something missing for me. It was like a cake without the icing on top. Nice, but ultimately lacking. The Starless Sea was just lacking that x factor that would make me care about anything going on within its pages. Because that was the problem: I just didn’t care. I didn’t care about Zachary Ezra Rawlins and whether he was inside a wardrobe or lying on a bed. I didn’t particularly care about his comrades, either. The only thing I really cared about in The Starless Sea was the cats, and that’s to be expected from this cat lover.

It’s ultimately quite hard to write a review for a book that just fell flat because I can’t rant and rave about things that made me angry or upset, but I can’t sing praises for things I loved, either. This is like the dreaded three star review but worse because I can’t think of much to say except that I really think this book is one that each person has to decide whether it is worth reading or not. Do I regret the many hours I spent reading the 500 pages of The Starless Sea? I can’t exactly say that I do. Because even though I felt like a curious bystander rather than an invested player in this game of a book, I still feel like there was something to be gained from it.

When I was coming to the end of The Starless Sea and realised what a masterpiece Morgenstern had created there was a fleeting moment where I wondered whether The Starless Sea is best read a second time, where everything is clear and the entire lack of a plot is less bothersome because you know what the ultimate endgame is for all the characters. I can’t say that I will willingly pick up this beast of a book again to reread it but it is a story I believe would be best consumed twice.

I know I haven’t done a particularly stellar job in either convincing someone to read The Starless Sea or not to read The Starless Sea but this is all I’ve got. I will tell you that this book is gay, though. That might be the drawcard for some of you.

© 2019, Chiara @ Books for a Delicate Eternity. All rights reserved.

trigger warning

multiple deaths, death themes, reference to animal death, abduction, forced drug use, mention of suicidality, mild blood and gore, reference to removal of tongue, skin branding, non-fatal drowning

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Posted on: December 2, 2019 • By: Chiara

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