The Harbor from Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea is an interesting place as far as Narnia-esque places go. Set beside the honey-filled titular Starless Sea, the Harbor isn’t exactly one place, but one of many. Set apart from the “real world” by magic doors, it is a place of wonder and beauty. As the years go by and the unending cycle ends and begins again, the Starless Sea rises and new Harbors are created. Below, I’m going to discuss some of the main world-building elements found in The Starless Sea and figure out where these elements helped the narrative, and perhaps where some more development might’ve helped the text. Warning: spoilers abound.
Above is a world-building web that features what I hope is most, if not all, of the various elements that one can consider when creating a fantasy world for your book. If I’m missing any, though, please let me know below.
World-building can be dangerously alluring with its multi-faceted nature, but not every element needs to be addressed in order for the setting to feel realistic. For the almost fairy-tale setting of The Starless Sea, the Harbor’s art, mythos, and magic take center stage, with the remaining shaded bubbles above coming organically.
Magic and Mysticism
There is very little magic in the “real world” setting of The Starless Sea. It only exists in the doorways, and the belief that something strange and magical truly could be on the other side of it, whereupon the door opens to reveal the Harbor. Within the Harbor itself, there is not so much in the way of magic as there is in the way of mystic: owls that seem to lord over the dark, the personification of Time and Fate, the ability to get lost outside of time or be born outside of time, and a strange Kitchen run by bees able to do anything from doing your laundry to making whatever food you desire.
With a sort of abstract feel to the magic within the Harbor, and indeed, even one of the characters disliking the term “magic” being used because of its inaccuracy, it’s difficult to determine the rules and limitations. As a soft magic system, the main characters don’t really know how anything works, but the magic itself generates more obstacles than deus ex machinas. The biggest one, perhaps, is the arrival of Eleanor in her strange ship appearing just in time to save Dorian from drowning in the sea of honey.
The very same magic, however, separates Eleanor and Simon and tricks Dorian into killing Zachary. It allows for the happy ending between all three romances–Eleanor and Simon, Mirabel and the Keeper, and even at the end, Zachary and Dorian. However, with the fairy tale theme of the story and the trials that the main characters endured, especially as they descended into the old Harbors, while it may at face value feel like something of a cop-out, it also doesn’t feel unexpected or even unbelievable.
In regards to magic, the biggest let-down was that of Fate’s heart. The novel references the story of Fate, and how the Owls tore Fate apart to keep her apart from Time so that the order of things could remain as they should, but a mouse stole Fate’s heart and protected it from them. The story also references a woman who builds a box for it, later given to Dorian, who presumably uses it to revive Zachary once his quest is over. Yet it is not Zachary’s heart, and one must wonder what effects it might have on Zachary to have Fate’s heart beating in his chest, and why Fate–Mirabel–doesn’t need it herself.
Politics and Power
There are three, perhaps four, main figures of power within the novel. Mirabel and the Keeper, Fate and Time respectively, have some magical power of their own, and they influence events to a certain degree. Mirabel helps orchestrate the mystery that Zachary needs to solve in order to break the loop and allow Fate and Time to be with one another, and the Keeper creates a place outside of time for Mirabel to be born, another key in ending the cycle.
Yet it’s clear that, despite their obvious power, they are not the ones in charge. That particular role could be given perhaps either to the “stars,” who charge Fate and Time’s romance with disrupting the flow of events in the first place, or the slightly-more-concrete figure of the Owl King and his compatriots, who serve as executioners and guards. Even so, besides a shadowy figure that Dorian sees for a short time while holding matches, we as readers don’t get to see the Owl King in real-time, only getting to meet him in the fairy-tale stories found in the featured Sweet Sorrows and Fortunes and Fables. It’s quite possible I missed something while I read, and as a writer, it’s difficult to tread the line between too much description and not enough, but the Owl King appeared to be an important figure in the story, and that the figure did not seem to play a more obvious role in the present-times of the novel made it so the character’s potential was not fully realized.
The Deities of The Harbor
It’s hard to classify the mysterious figure of the Owl King and the more concrete figures of the Keeper and Mirabel as a “religion” found within the Starless Sea, but I have to at least classify them as “deities.” The revelation that the Keeper and Mirabel are Time and Fate read almost as the trope of “proving that old gods are real and have their hands in actual events.”
History Vs Myth
In fact, that is perhaps one of the biggest flaws in The Starless Sea: it details its history throughout the book in the fairy-tale and poetry snippets we get between chapters, yet it does not clearly define what is actually history and what is myth. Erin Morgenstern does a beautiful job of describing the history of the Starless Sea, not just in the fairy-tale snippets but also in the various Harbors that Zachary and Dorian get to see in their descent. And, like all history, it gets warped with the passage of time, turning it from fact to story to myth. This is a natural phenomenon.
However, myths by nature have warped themselves from the truth. They’ve turned magical and awe-inspiring. There is some grain of the truth at its core, perhaps, but most of it is no longer believable. I applaud Erin Morgenstern for her skill at writing these warped histories, and it’s notably impressive that she managed to detail the Starless Sea’s history without making it info-dumping. (The fact that, as I stated in my review, it made it slow reading at first is less an issue of world-building and more an issue of the novel’s structure.)
The warped histories, however, don’t work quite as well as they should, and the reason boils down to magic. When we’re asked to believe in magic doors that open to this beautiful quasi-magical place, and when we’re asked to believe that Mirabel and the Keeper are Fate and Time personified, and when we’re asked to believe that the Starless Sea is made of honey and its Harbors are magically made anew as the need arises, it grows difficult to untangle how much of the fairy-tales we’re supposed to take for granted as true and how much of it we’re supposed to know is clearly warped and myth-ified by the passage of time. Are the stories written factually accurate, or are they made bigger and grander for story-telling purposes? Normally, it’s not a terribly huge deal, but when an author spends ample page time discussing what makes a story good and alluring, and then says the fairy-tales could be factually correct in some capacity, it’s difficult not to wonder, as a reader, what is true and what is not.
Education: The Protection of Individual Histories
For the most part, the Harbor seems to serve as almost as a tourist destination, or a place to retire, if retirement happened at all different ages. It’s not a place that requires schools for its children, although the two children who grew up here were not lacking for teachers or subject material, surrounded as they were by books.
There were three separate paths that a person could take if they were deemed worthy: 1) That of the acolyte, recorder of stories. 2) That of the guardian, protector (of the books? The Harbor? It’s left a little ambiguous). 3) That of the Keeper, who keeps records to ensure nothing is lost. These three paths are apprenticeships that allow a person to learn a specific set of knowledge accessible only to those who have been deemed “worthy.”
I say “were” because the roles have faded away with the isolation of the Harbor from the efforts of Allegra, the level-one villain, if you will. It’s unclear how long it’s been, exactly, since the Harbor began to empty, but there is only one acolyte by the name of Rhyme in the present-day plotline, and only one Keeper, when there used to be many, and no guardian at all.
The Art Tradition
Traditions can often shift due to extraneous circumstances, as is the case with the Harbor. The entrance exam, with its cup of mysterious liquids and the dice that uncover the tester’s personality, remains as it has always been, but the traditions in regards to the three paths have ultimately faded because of the lack of people coming into the Harbor in the first place. The stories that remain there are those that presumably were there in the first place.
While the Harbor is described as being full of books, Morgenstern does not tie the idea of “story” to books alone. Video games play a big role in The Starless Sea‘s initial diatribe on the idea of story is one example, although there are no video games in the Harbor. Rather, there are paintings and sculptures and a doll house is a story personified. Books play the biggest part in the story, specifically the ones featured in the text of The Starless Sea, however, which adds to the prominence of books and a written or spoken narrative that is so prevalent in the Harbor.
The Physical Harbor
When discussing world-building, one cannot forget the actual physicality of it. If it’s difficult for the reader to picture the setting, then the rest hardly matters. Fortunately, the text provides clear descriptions that, while not giving us the whole picture, give us enough to see the scene unfold.
Maps and Lack Thereof
Ninety percent of the time, a fantasy novel is improved with the inclusion of a map, as they help readers stay grounded in regards to the location they’re currently in. The nature of the Harbor, however, would make it difficult to map. I also think that the various layers of Harbors came as something of a quasi-surprise, and there are certain areas of the Starless Sea that would be impossible to map. I think that the nature of the Sea is mobile and shifting and mysterious enough that having a map would just detract from some of the mystique.
The setting found within The Starless Sea is fairly well-developed, and I think for the most part, the issues I’ve noted above have more to do with the how the story is told than a failure to fully develop the Harbor. The various elements found within the Harbors add to the mystique and whimsy that the novel is tying to encapsulate. So while I think there are some different aspects that could have been improved on or better detailed in the actual text, there are a lot of things that the Starless Sea does right when it comes to world-building.