This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.
The Starless Sea is a story about stories. It explores how they are created and the impact they have when shared. It is about choices and their repercussions. It is about ongoing ownership and interpretations of tales.
The reader is prompted to consider if their reality is a fragile construct made from attitude and perception – what is believed and why, rather than other possibilities.
“A multitude of seekers looking for things they do not have names for and finding them in stories written and unwritten and in each other.”
There are many stories within this story. They come from, amongst other things, books and conversation. Many questions are asked that only multiply as responses are provided. In life, there is rarely only one answer. Our stories grow like vines, throwing out tendrils that weave through each other or set off in new directions when disseminated.
The protagonist is a young man named Zachary Ezra Rawlins. He is the son of a fortune-teller. When he was eleven years old he discovered a beautiful rendition of a door on a wall outside his mother’s shop. It looked real enough to be three-dimensional and yet he chose not to try to open it. That, he believed, would have been impossible, the idea childish and therefore rejected.
Fourteen years later Zachary checks out a book from the fiction section of his university library. He is a post grad student of emerging media studies – specialising in video games – but also an avid reader. The book is very old, donated from a private collection several decades previously. It includes a tale of a boy, the son of a fortune-teller, who finds a door painted on a wall that he chooses not to open. Zachary is inexorably drawn inside a story he is somehow a part of without his knowledge.
“Anyone who enters the room affects it. Leaves an impression upon it even if it is unintentional.”
Zachary needs to know how an old story can contain precise details of an episode from his own life that happened long after the tale was published. He searches for clues as to the origins of the book, and in doing so discovers he has attracted the attention of a secretive society. There are recurring symbols: bee, key, sword, crown, heart, and feather. There are many doors to be opened – choices to be made – with few clues as to what lies beyond – what happens next.
Chapters telling Zachary’s story are alternated with stories from the books he reads and then fragments from pages torn out and refashioned, often into origami stars. Stars appear to be the baddies here, although where each character stands in the good or bad spectrum is only slowly made clear. Gradually the tendrils weave together and back stories are revealed.
The structure is similar to a role playing video game with immersive quests wound around rich narrative and detailed descriptions. The numerous side quests required some flicking back to reread earlier chapters for added clarity.
The heart of the setting is a vast underground library where cats roam free and guest bedrooms provide sanctuary. The undulating layers of plot and recurring characters are deliciously meta. Zachary is taken to the library and discovers a labyrinth with a strange history. Deciding who to trust from amongst those requesting his participation will determine the role he plays in his life’s game.
Ongoing tension is carefully balanced to remain compelling but the story never feels rushed. The writing is more literary than thriller with a voice that was a joy to read. Its style has a timeless feel – fable like – yet harnesses many contemporary and cultural references. There are regular sprinklings of droll humour.
Pivotal events are described with tastes, textures and smells as well as emotions – recognition that memories are triggered by all the senses. Time and fate, whose importance is so often disregarded, are granted importance in plot progression. Much use is made of metaphors, although the definition of reality and how much this matters is regularly questioned.
Every story requires an ending and what is offered here works well. It was, however, just a little drawn out with a denouement a tad sweeter than my tastes.
This is a lengthy book but one that never feels bloated. Rather there is interest and meaning to be found in each direction taken. Cross referencing across side stories required attention to detail, much of which will likely have been missed on this first read through. I am confident it will continue to reveal new facets over numerous rereads.
Any Cop?: A strong and highly imaginative work of immersive fantasy fiction. Story construction will henceforth be viewed through a more vivid lens.