Book Review: “The Starless Sea” by Erin Morgenstern

Warning: This book review contains spoilers for Erin Morgenstern’s “The Starless Sea.” If you haven’t read the book or want to avoid spoilers, hit that back button right now!

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Cover of “The Starless Sea” by Erin Morgenstern.

I’m back with another book review, and this time I’m reviewing “The Starless Sea” by Erin Morgenstern! Long before I started this blog, I actually read “The Night Circus” when it first came out and loved it, so I’m glad to pick up Morgenstern’s newest book and read it. Here’s a summary so we know what it’s about:

“Far beneath the surface of the earth, upon the shores of the Starless Sea, there is a labyrinthine collection of tunnels and rooms filled with stories. The entryways that lead to this sanctuary are often hidden, sometimes on forest floors, sometimes in private homes, sometimes in plain sight. But those who seek will find. Their doors have been waiting for them.

Zachary Ezra Rawlins is searching for his door, though he does not know it. He follows a silent siren song, an inexplicable knowledge that he is meant for another place. When he discovers a mysterious book in the stacks of his campus library he begins to read, entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, lost cities, and nameless acolytes. Suddenly a turn of the page brings Zachary to a story from his own childhood impossibly written in this book that is older than he is.

A bee, a key, and a sword emblazoned on the book lead Zachary to two people who will change the course of his life: Mirabel, a fierce, pink-haired painter, and Dorian, a handsome, barefoot man with shifting alliances. These strangers guide Zachary through masquerade party dances and whispered back room stories to the headquarters of a secret society where doorknobs hang from ribbons, and finally through a door conjured from paint to the place he has always yearned for. Amid twisting tunnels filled with books, gilded ballrooms, and wine-dark shores Zachary falls into an intoxicating world soaked in romance and mystery. But a battle is raging over the fate of this place and though there are those who would willingly sacrifice everything to protect it, there are just as many intent on its destruction. As Zachary, Mirabel, and Dorian venture deeper into the space and its histories and myths, searching for answers and each other, a timeless love story unspools, casting a spell of pirates, painters, lovers, liars, and ships that sail upon a Starless Sea.”

Worldbuilding Development: 4 out of 5 stars

I do like the concept of the world: It’s made out of stories, and not just a few, but constant stories that are beginning and ending all at once. The various, multiple descriptions used to describe this world are very fantastical, and it’s definitely a feast for the eyes in terms of visuals, even if there isn’t any official art for it.

However, a lot of the magic of the worldbuilding is mostly attributed to the fact that it’s made of stories are beginning and ending all at once. It’s not really specified how one knows if a story is ending, or if it’s beginning, so it got a little confusing at times to follow, given that uncertainty. If that was the goal the author was going for, to make the reader feel that sort of uncertainty of where the story is going within the world of this book, then she succeeded.

Character Development: 3 out of 5 stars

The main three characters (Zack, Dorian and Mirabel) don’t have much development (other than Zack and Dorian having their romance, but I’ll elaborate on that in the romance section). Each of them had their unique quirks, and I did like reading their various connections to each other and the world around them (especially with the reveals in the latter half of the story), but none of them really change much as individual people. They don’t learn a big lesson and apply it to their lives, they don’t have a huge amount of impact happen with their personalities, and there isn’t a lot of conflict to fight through other than physical danger from time to time, so I was a little disappointed there.

I was also disappointed with the lack of use in Allegra in the main story. I do like how one of the little side stories connected her to the main story and gave her a little motivation and/or explanation for why she does what she does in the main plot, but I wish there was more to her than what was given. Despite her build-up as an antagonist/main villain, she doesn’t get a lot of time to shine, and she’s killed off as soon as three quarters through the book. Side characters such as Simon and Eleanor, however, were quite interesting for the time they had in the book, as well as how they connected to Mirabel and Zack in particular (especially Mirabel, though, and I can’t elaborate why do to that being a major spoiler halfway/three-quarters through the book).

Plot Development: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Be warned: There is a lot of jumping around when it comes to whose point of view is whose. Thankfully, most of the time it’s understandable in terms of whose perspective you are looking through when reading each chapter, so it’s easy to keep up with the main three characters (Zack, Mirabel and Dorian) and a few side/secondary characters that have more precedence midway through the book, as well as what they are doing.

Good news: There is an obvious main plot shown through these changing perspectives. It’s slow, but it’s there. It picks up most of its pace and precedence in the latter half of the book, however. The unfortunate news is that many of the little side stories inbetween chapters are either 1. irrelevant to the main plot and would work on their own as short stories maybe connected in the same universe as the main plot, but not within the same book or 2. they will not make sense until the latter half of the book due to them being connected sideplots in disguise. The sideplots can be fun to read, but I just wish a lot more of them had more relevance to the overall main plot.

Romance Development: 3 out of 5 stars

I genuinely wish I could rate romance higher than I did, because it was a cute romance overall, but I must be honest: the romance between Zack and Dorian could use a lot more lead-up and/or foreshadowing before the scene where Dorian outright confesses his romantic feelings for Zack. Up until then, I didn’t sense any hints of these two being even close to at least having a small crush on each other, so Dorian’s love confession came out of nowhere for me as a reader. However, I do adore how these two did look out for each other for the latter half of the book and developed more chemistry from that midway point, and I am glad they got their happy ending.

Overall, I’m rating this book 3.5 out of 5 stars!

If you want to read this for the fantasical worldbuilding and aesthetics, this is definitely worth the read. However, be careful when trying to jump through differentiating points-of-views every chapter.

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