Robyn Reviews: The Starless Sea

“I think the best stories feel like they’re still going, somewhere, out in story space.”

The Starless Sea is a triumph of imagination and wordcraft. It’s ethereal and fantastical and mysterious and breathtakingly bizarre yet beautiful in a way I’ve never known any author but Erin Morgenstern to manage. There is absolutely no way to review this book and do it justice. I went in blind, and I think going in not knowing what to expect is the best way to read this book. It’s an immersive experience and different to any other book I have ever read – in the best way. If you enjoyed Morgenstern’s first book, The Night Circus, you should love this book.

As with The Night Circus, what makes the novel is the writing. Morgenstern writes in a lyrical, almost whimsical fashion and manages to create improbable yet incredibly vivid stories you want to be real. In most books, long passages of description are dull and pull you out of the story – in Morgenstern’s books, they make the story. I understand that it isn’t a writing style that suits everyone, but for those who’ve always longed for something more, for a world bigger than it is, for the improbable and supernatural and a little sprinkle of magic – this is the book for you. Morgenstern writes for the dreamers. The Night Circus was like a dream. The Starless Sea is like a cross between a dream and the world’s most immersive video game, with hidden references to every notable work of literature published in the last few hundred years.

The novel centers around Zachary Ezra Rawlins – full name emphasised – an Emerging Media Studies student and the sweetest, most delightful human being of all time. He’s an avid reader and video gamer and beyond all, a dreamer. He believes in the possibility of More. Zachary is the sort of character anyone would want to be friends with, and it’s a pleasure to spend time with him on his journey. His friendship with Kat is truly heartwarming and would bring a smile to anyone’s face.

“A boy at the beginning of a story has no way of knowing that the story has begun”

The other characters are each delightful in their own way – the wonderful Kat, mysterious Dorian, enigmatic Mirabel, sweet Eleanor, intriguing Allegra – but, my fellow readers, I will leave them for you to discover. You only get to discover this book for the first time once, and I don’t want to do anything to minimise that experience for you.

The only tiny, tiny quibble I have with this book is its ending. I don’t love it quite as much as I love The Night Circus because the ending wasn’t quite as satisfying to me. That being said, it’s still an excellent ending – it just didn’t ring the note that I wanted.

Enjoy your first journey to The Starless Sea. Someday I hope to see you on the shore.


Published by Harvill Secker / Vintage
Hardback: 9th November 2019
Paperback: 6th August 2020


Book Review: The Starless Sea

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.


Jackie Law