JUNE 20, 2020
THE STARLESS SEA, Erin Morgenstern’s sophomore fantasy novel, takes effort to read, but there are countless narratively complex works of science fiction and fantasy that amply reward such effort: N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season comes to mind as one recent, prominent example of the type. The effort of reading The Starless Sea is worthwhile (for the most part) if, like me, you enjoy deciphering narrative clues, weaving together story threads, and nodding at metatextual nuggets.
The Starless Sea combines elements of fantasy that traditionally delight readers. It is part portal fantasy á la The Magicians and part Alice in Wonderland. It contains an enchanted library — a fantasy staple ranging from Terry Pratchett to Harry Potter — but this one reminds me most of the library of the Clayr from Garth Nix’s Lirael. And it features a secret society with iconography that evokes the Deathly Hallows (which will definitely inform my next jewelry purchase).
Put simply, the novel follows the son of a fortune-teller, Zachary Ezra Rawlins, as he quests to discover, and then save, an underground magical library. The library has come under threat from a clandestine organization, known as the Guardians. Their mission is to keep knowledge of the library secret, and they are willing to destroy people (and the library itself) to achieve that goal. The library, on the other hand, has its own destiny: to destroy itself in a phoenix-like process of rebirth, so that its current stories can finish and new ones may begin. In his efforts to counter the Guardians, Zachary unknowingly becomes a key player in the library’s own agenda. In this sense, the library and the Starless Sea are rich and complex characters, just like the other individuals in the novel.
The book is divided into six sections. In each section, the chapters alternate between narrating a piece of Zachary’s story — the “real-time” events of the novel — and presenting either a fable or another narrative. These interspersed stories come from books that Zachary reads within the text, or they follow other characters who are part of the main story. People, places, and symbols introduced in these interludes will appear as material realities later in the “real time” of the story.
With few exceptions, the chapters are narrated in the third person and in the present tense. Book I is interspersed with stories from a book titled Sweet Sorrows, which is revealed as a book within the book when Zachary finds it in his university library. These fables read like exhibit descriptions from Erin Morgenstern debut novel, The Night Circus, and they are beautifully written. There is a poetic, oral, fairy-tale quality to the prose that is a clear shift from the chapters about Zachary. But things get weird when Zachary reads the book only to find a story about himself, a story that Morgenstern’s reader has encountered only a few pages before, which tells the tale of the son of a fortune-teller who could have opened a door into a secret world and found the Starless Sea, but did not.
This, of course, sends Zachary in search of the Starless Sea and leads him into trouble with the Guardians. With the help of his mysterious love interest, Dorian, and the quirky Mirabel, Zachary finds his way underground and attempts to unravel the same questions as the reader: What is happening? What do all of these stories mean?
The structure of the novel defines it as much as, if not more than, the plot points. The second section of the book is divided between Zachary’s adventures and stories from Dorian’s special book within this book, Fortunes and Fables. Book III features The Ballad of Simon and Eleanor, which records the true love story of a boy and girl from different times who meet in the library and are, it turns out, Mirabel’s parents. Book IV contains fragments from stories that Eleanor didn’t like and tore out of Sweet Sorrows when she was a girl. Book V, The Owl King, breaks the pattern by alternating between Dorian’s and Zachary’s adventures. Book VI includes The Secret Diary of Katrina Hawkins — Kat is Zachary’s closest friend who has investigated Zachary’s disappearance intently enough to be stalked by the Guardians.
It turns out that, as we expected, all of the stories are connected. The Pirate from the opening story, the recurring figure of Time, and the Keeper are all the same person, for example. And these connections answer certain questions, but the stories don’t map smoothly onto each other, and they clearly aren’t meant to.
The novel is ambitious in a way that takes it well beyond the scope of The Night Circus (and possibly the expectations or desires of many fantasy readers). If you want someone to tell you a straightforward story, this novel is not going to deliver. And the narrative ambition of the text deserves to be recognized and rewarded. It also engages in some of my favorite metatextual moves: I love a story that’s about telling a story, that’s aware of its own status as narrative, and where the characters recognize their own liminal reality. To enjoy this narrative structure, you have to have a high tolerance for meta moments like Zachary’s realization: “But if he’s in a story within a story who is telling it? Someone must have typeset it and bound it in a book. Someone somewhere knows this story. He wonders if someone somewhere knows he’s sitting on the floor of his closet.” For me, these kinds of moments are delightful. I can raise my mental hand and say, “I know! I know! And I’m reading that book, haha.” But why am I reading that book? Both the reader and Zachary are searching for what happens next in an explicit, literal way.
However, this mode of self-awareness has to have a payoff. If characters are going to keep having realizations about how stories work, then the reader also needs to have a realization about how stories work, and this realization should organically develop from the events of the stories in question. There are small moments where the reader is able to guess how the stories are intertwined and fit unnamed figures to their named counterparts in other narratives before the author reveals it. But these connections do not tell me anything or lead me to a larger realization about the narrative.
Broadly speaking, on the level of structure, the novel offers two intertwined love stories: the reunions of Time and Fate and the romance of Zachary and Dorian. But while the afterword ends with gratifying happy endings, these do not feel as if they actually resolve the novel. While I enjoy reading about their adventures, I still don’t entirely understand why Zachary and Dorian need to do the things they do, or how their actions prompt the resolution of the narrative. The strange sentience behind the library revealed at the end is enigmatic and, while delightful, doesn’t offer answers to the reader’s questions. As a result, The Starless Sea seems to ask two central questions that it never satisfactorily answers: “What is a story?” and “What makes a story?”
On one hand, Morgenstern offers an argument about preexisting narratives: stories are absolutes that exist beyond readers and authors. All stories, in other words, are the same story with different variations. The most ubiquitous quote from the novel — “We are all stardust and stories” — gestures toward this. Zachary makes the claim directly at one point, observing that “[a]ll of the stories are the same story.” The implication is not just for this novel, but encompassing all novels. And okay, yes, but so what? Unfortunately, the characters have a tendency to offer oracular statements that sound like they reveal more than they do.
Mutually constitutive with this is the theme that “[c]hange is what a story is, after all,” as Mirabel says. Taken with the above, the suggestion is that all stories are the recombination of repeating elements in different ways. Taken together, these two conclusions about stories attempt to justify the narrative structure of the novel. But I’m still left thinking, okay, but so what? What does this mean for us as readers, for how we should approach future stories or navigate the world? The novel asks profound questions, but doesn’t offer equally profound answers.
Reaching the end of a narrative requires ending the story, and one of the confusing things about The Starless Sea is that the only story that ends is the story of the Starless Sea. At the novel’s conclusion, the characters’ stories are just beginning. But I have to concede that ending with a resurrection, a rebirth, a new beginning, may be the only option if the nature of story is change. Here, again, I turn to the ambitious aims of the novel: it may not have given me all that I wanted, but it did give me something I appreciate.
Leigha McReynolds has a PhD in English Literature. Her dissertation was on science and the supernatural in 19th-century British Literature, but her current research focus is contemporary science fiction.