Book Review: The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

I think it’s somewhat ironic, after discussing parts to whole when contemplating a book’s goodness, that I’ve stumbled across a book that just won’t give me an answer. What is good in it is well-planned and cross-referenced in a way that makes it feel like you’re solving a mystery, and books like that tend to be good at keeping the reader’s attention. What is less good about it, however, is distracting and frustrating to say the least.

It boils down to a few key elements, some of which have both good and bad attached to them. But, fair warning, this book review is going to fully discuss events of the story, so, here’s your official spoiler warning.

The 2019 Doubleday Books hardback cover, which is the one I got.

Structure

Starless Sea takes a big risk with the structure of the narrative. It’s divided into a total of six parts, and with each of those parts, the standard narrative breakdown is Main Quest/”unrelated”/Main Quest, etc. Unrelated is in quotes, of course, because it turns out that they are, in fact, related in some fashion. It’s all supposed to tie together neatly.

I will discuss a lot of the content in those “unrelated” portions in the section below, but it’s important to discuss the repercussions of breaking up the narrative in the way that Morgenstern did. It’s an interesting story, of course, full of stories that seem like fantasy until you’re given reason to wonder if they really happened in this strange world that is known as the Harbor and the Starless Sea.

Unfortunately, that realization is held off until I’d say the third part of the book, with the Ballad of Simon and Eleanor. Until that point, you’re given several different stories from Sweet Sorrows in its titular part 1, and then even more mythical stories from Fortunes and Fables in the titular part 2. Pair that with Morgenstern’s delight in a cliffhanger ending for her chapters, and it was incredibly frustrating. It didn’t leave me wanting to read more. It left me annoyed that there were these strange, confusing, questionably relevant blocks of text between what I knew to be interesting and exciting and tense.

On the other hand, three of the six total parts managed to capture intrigue in its “unrelated” chapters, but these three parts were significantly different from the other three in two ways: 1) they were their own continuous storyline, and 2) their parts were more relevantly clear. Book 5: The Owl King is easy. It swaps between the main character, Zachary, and the love interest, Dorian, as they both tumble deeper into the maze of the old Harbors. Book 6: The Secret Diary of Katrina Hawkins is close to the same, because we were introduced to her character in the first part, and she’s trying to understand what happened to her friend after he disappeared. She’s trying to solve the puzzle that we’ve already mostly solved, giving the reader a few extra pieces and also tying up loose ends like what happened to the Collector’s Club.

It’s Book 3: The Ballad of Simon and Eleanor that I think really showcases what Morgenstern was trying to do with the first two “books.” It has its own mystery and fantastical elements we’ve come to expect from the strange excerpts of in-book books, but it focuses on two characters and one story, rather than changing it up with every other chapter. Not only that, while I don’t recall exactly if Simon and Eleanor were directly referenced in books 1 & 2, their relevance is still hinted at.

Book 4: Written in the Stars is probably one of the more useless parts, in my opinion, as it’s comprised of strange short prose and poetry, and also connects to one of the more confusing bits of symbolism strung throughout the entire book, but because they only took up half a page or so, it wasn’t so tedious to read them.

The 2019 Vintage Publishing hardback cover. So pretty.

I’m not necessarily saying that the Sweet Sorrows and Fortunes and Fables don’t add to the story. The former, especially, ends up having a surprisingly literal translation, for the most part. The way that it is so bluntly added to the narrative, however, risks turning the reader off, as can often happen when readers are presented information too early.

Symbolism

The symbolism found within the Starless Sea may be one of my biggest issues with the narrative. On the one hand, it’s obvious from pretty early on that certain images are important to the story itself, although you don’t know at what capacity until later. On the other hand, you’re going to find yourself clunked over the head with them. Bee. Sword. Key. Bee. Sword. Key. Bunny. Owl. Bee, sword, key, heart, feather, crown. Egg? Stars. More stars, more bees and swords and keys. It’s just… a lot. And, unless I missed some elements of the narrative, I’m not sure it’s very clear, even at the end, what all of them are supposed to mean or even how well the metaphor works.

Look, I went back. I flipped through the first two parts, and tried to cross-reference the fairy tale stories with the rest of the narrative now that the resolution was fresh in my mind. Every Sweet Sorrows fairy tale wound up being important; the characters in it end up being real people who played a role in the events of the rest of the narrative, most of whom were also current characters. The only exception, as far as I can tell, were the three stories labeled, “There are three paths. This is one of them,” but they still served a function. They still explained how the Harbor worked and what the Harbor was for, so I’ll forgive them for that.

The 2019 Harvil Secker version of The Starless Sea hardcover

Fortunes and Fables was another matter entirely. Only two stories were referenced later in the story: Dorian’s backstory, so to speak, and the tale of the inn at the edge of the world. The four other fairy tale stories within this “book” of the novel are just that, as far as I can tell. They reference the Owl King some more, building him up to be some scary character, but like the other characters of these fairy tales, nothing happens with them.

That leaves me, as the reader, with a question, one that characters like Zachary ask, and eventually answer regarding Sweet Sorrows but never Fortunes and Fables: if we know some of it is real, then should we assume the rest is? Did I miss something important, some small details that made it clear how these fairy tales tied into the narrative?

It makes me think of… I think it was the pirate, who was a metaphor but also a person, and who I think it was said of that he sometimes forgot how to be both? I can’t find the quote but I’m pretty sure it’s in there somewhere. But it’s kind of like that, like the fairy tales in Fortunes and Fables forgot that they were also supposed to be real.

This could very easily be personal opinion, but it’s the X but also not X that makes it confusing. Was it important, or a waste of time? Myths and fairy tales serve a certain purpose in literature, adding a sort of mysticism to something that’s drab and boring. But when you add in these layers of Real World / Magic Harbor and Starless Sea / Fairy Tale stories of questionable relevance, especially when, again, most of the fairy tale stories seem to come too early and too frequently, making it difficult to remember them all…it’s a lot to untangle and it’s hard to know whether or not you were supposed to, or even supposed to be able to. Which is not a pleasant book feeling.

Prose

I’d like to start off with something petty and small that might have really only bothered me because I studied English in college, but this book didn’t feel very well edited, just grammatically speaking. There were a lot of comma splices, definitely, and probably at least a few run-on sentences. I think they were supposed to add to the whimsical nature of the storytelling, but for me, they were just distracting.

The whimsy was something else. It worked in some places, and others, not so much. You can’t help but use a sort of whimsical narrative when you’re dealing with myths and fairy tales, but sometimes it just made the text harder to understand. Erin Morgenstern used the same narrative style on The Night Circus, from what I remember, but I think it worked because of the type of story she told. It was a whimsical story, about kids drawn to this strange circus and the even stranger politics governing its magic and its purpose. The Starless Sea is primarily about a college student. Admittedly, a college student who studies stories and wants to hold onto the belief in magical things, but I was that college student, and a person like Zachary wouldn’t feel whimsical. It just kind of goes against his character, the flowery writing.

There’s also a lot of discussion, primarily in the first part of the novel, about the elements of story and what makes stories good and compelling. A few were interesting, and seemed to be accurate from my point of view, which I’ll add below, but for the most part, it didn’t quite feel like it fit. The whole concept of the Starless Sea is that everyone, no matter who they are, has their story recorded. It doesn’t matter how mundane it is, from what I understood. Everyone’s story was told. That’s why the Harbor was so vast. You’ll have to tell me if you agree with my favorites or not.

Everyone is a part of a story, what they want is to be part of something worth recording

Book 1: Sweet Sorrows; pg 36. Also, the comma splice was already there.

Call me out, why don’t you, Erin Morgenstern?

“A book is an interpretation,” [Mirabel] says. “You want a place to be like it was in the book but its not a place in a book it’s just words. The place in your imagination is where you want to go and that place is imaginary. This is real,” she places her hand on the wall in front of them. The stone is cracked near her fingers, a fissure running down the side and disappearing into a column. “You could write endless pages but the words will never be the place. Besides, that’s what it was. Not what it is.”

Book 3: The Ballad of Simon and Eleanor; pg 248. Again, grammar errors were already in the text.

I found this to be a really poetic and beautiful way of saying that even when something is based off of real life, a book is not the same as real life. It can’t be. Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing, as Mirabel suggests. It’s nice to be able to step away from the real world in some capacity, so to speak, and for those of us actually in the real world, there is no wardrobe we can open and climb through into a magic land. There is no door we can step into that leads to the Starless Sea. Books are the closest things we get to doors.

Stray Thoughts

“Nothing like too many health potions placed just before a door to signify something dangerous to come.”

Book 5: The Owl King; pg 389

I’m not going to lie, the above line made me laugh. I’m not an avid video game player, but that’s a lesson you learn pretty quickly, I think. And I thought it funny enough to write down, so…

The figure of the Owl King was one of the most aggravating let-downs of the book. The character was something of a motif, but unlike practically all of the other motifs of the book, I don’t know that we ever actually met him. Eleanor was supposed to have dropped Dorian off to find him, and I was expecting the Owl King would be killed off by the end, but I’m not entirely sure if he plays any role at all, if he’s connected to the strange darkness that warped Dorian’s and Zachary’s minds or if they are two separate entities.

Kat’s ending was also… confusing. I can’t decide why she was sent into the Harbor, if she was meant to act as its new Keeper or to find Dorian and Zachary, or what. Considering the old Keeper took the only remaining acolyte, Rhyme, out of the Harbor with him, there’s no one to explain to Kat what exactly the Harbor is, which meant her conclusion left more questions than answers.

That’s not to say I didn’t like any of it. Zachary’s character was relatable. I loved that he didn’t have the traditional hetero romance. I loved how fierce Mirabel was even though her romance with the Keeper didn’t get a chance to be fleshed out more. I loved Kat’s unwillingness to let this mystery go. I loved how Simon and Eleanor’s ballad was written. It was just… a confusing book for me, and I’m not sure that the good were good enough to outweigh the bad.


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