Cities of honey and bone

Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea

In troubled times, absorbing books are a blessing: a gateway to a different world, from which we can return with a subtly altered perspective on the problems of our own.

I remember loving The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, a 2011 novel about a richly imagined circus that sets the stage for an age-old struggle between two immensely powerful magicians. The premise (and even the title) recalls Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, and Morgenstern’s confident storytelling and overflowing creativity is worthy company for Carter – high praise from me, as Nights at the Circus is one of my favourite books. (Its other reference point is Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke – I loved that too and really must watch the TV series. Coronavirus might see me finally subscribe to Netflix!)

Morgenstern’s new book, The Starless Sea, displays the same dazzlingly fertile creativity, but this time, her inspiration is the video game. Does that sound less romantic than the circus? Don’t worry: she blends in the eternal tropes of Time and Fate; a love story that endures over centuries and past death; and that slam-dunk for any reader who would ever pick up a 500-page novel: an endless, labyrinthine library that extends through galleries, halls and levels in an underground otherworld where time and stories do not always proceed in as orderly a fashion as in our reality. I could very happily live in Morgenstern’s mysterious library with its numberless rooms, bordering the Starless Sea, and I suspect I’m not the only one.

A fantasy library from Desktop Nexus that reminded me of the one in The Starless Sea

Her protagonist is Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a reclusive postgrad student of Emerging Media (i.e. video games) who, as a child, saw a door painted onto an alley wall and didn’t open it. After finding a book in his university library that includes exactly that story – himself, as a child, finding a painted door and not opening it – he gets a second chance to find his way to the world beyond the door, which is… you guessed it, the world of the vast underground library and the Starless Sea. Soon he’s caught up in an epic battle to save that world. This is the main storyline, but there are plenty of inserted fairy stories that form parts of books the characters read. I found all these equally enchanting.

Magic is tricky territory for adult books. It’s so easy to get it wrong. But I recall so vividly that blurry, dreamlike uncertainty about the laws of the universe that is among childhood’s richest gifts. The cat might talk. The wardrobe might open into a mysterious land. I might be the heroine of a quest I know nothing about… yet. The world was sufficiently wondrous and new to me that I wasn’t sure what was real and what wasn’t. I didn’t know how ATMs and washing machines worked – perhaps there was equally incomprehensible, more exciting magic out there? Morgenstern captures this wonder, particularly in her richly layered descriptions (when I said you could live in the library, I meant it – her creations are endlessly imaginative, vivid and precise). However, the story was never ENTIRELY clear to me. Because I read fast and inattentively, I often miss vital plot points, so thought it was my fault, but I see other reviewers agree. I actually think this is a common fault among epic fantasy books – the protagonist is pitched into a world whose rules and history they know nothing of, and so neither do we. This mystery often hinders the plot – see: Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings. I feel it’s maybe a bit lazy to have dramatic tension hinge on the fact that the protagonist never has a clue what’s going on, and for me, The Starless Sea does fall into that trap. The characters aren’t quite fully fleshed out and, even as an easily scared reader, I never really feared the antagonist.

But honestly, I would love this book if only for its creation of that incredible library – it will live in my imagination for a long time. And that’s far from its only virtue. I cared about the two central love stories; I revelled in the intricate symbolism; I adored the grandiose boldness of incorporating Time and Fate. I didn’t want to leave this book and I’ll reread it to re-enter that world and catch nuances I missed first time round. So… thumbs up for a self-isolation or quarantine read. It wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t far off.