Lots of Magic in ‘Sea’ But It’s Hard to Reach

About forty percent or so through The Starless Sea is a sort of parenthetical tale about a sculptor who tells stories through her work. She first works with clouds and with snow—things that disappear almost immediately. As people demand more permanence in her work, she transitions to different mediums to tell her stories to the point that she learns to tell the stories that stones want to tell.

At one viewing, a man comes up to her and asks whether she can hide stories as well as she can tell them because he has a secret that cannot be found out. The sculptor considers, then works feverishly for over a year to complete the thing that can hide this man’s secret. She creates a puzzle box within a puzzle box, all locks and mazes and misdirection that only she can devise the way through.

The story seemed like an apt metaphor for the book up to that point, and for a good ways after it; it’s just one of many such parenthetical asides that build a world we don’t encounter in depth until over halfway through the book. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Keys and bees and swords, oh my!

The bulk of The Starless Sea centers around Zachary, the son of a fortune teller who encountered a door to a fantastical land when he was young—and promptly passes it by. It disappears, but nearly twenty years later, he is acutely reminded of that moment when he reads about it in a mysterious old book he gets from his campus library. The unmistakable familiarity of that moment in a book ostensibly published decades before he was born sets Zachary searching for clues that ultimately lead him to a masquerade party in Manhattan. It is there that he meets the mysterious Mirabel and the charming Dorian, and then goes through a similar door to the aforementioned fantastical land.

Dorian, though, is left on the other side of the door, so Mirabel and Zachary go after him. But doing so reveals an organized plot against Mirabel and the world Zachary has fallen into. Things only get stranger when he begins receiving notes telling him to find a series of things lost to time, and stranger still when he encounters an old painting featuring him and Dorian and some yet-unknown heroics.

The main plotline is more or less straightforward, for a fantasy-heist-mystery sort of story, and it all moved really quickly in the second half. But getting through the first half took a little more work. I usually blaze through books pretty quickly regardless of genre, but this one took a while. True, at 500 or so pages it’s a little longer than most books I usually read, but it wasn’t the page count that slowed me down but how fast I downed the pages. For every section about Zachary’s search for answers and his exploration of the Harbor (that abuts the titular Starless Sea), there was a section about (usually) unnamed denizens of the world, such as the sculptor-storyteller that I mentioned earlier.

These sections away from the main storyline provided depth to the world and color to the rich history Zachary later catches glimpses of, but they’re more valuable in hindsight than they are at the time. As I started reading, I caught myself skimming through those sections, trying to get back to Zachary’s story, and sometimes I didn’t feel overly motivated to do that because it took a while to feel invested in Zachary as a character. It’s a mashup of worlds and ideas and characters that resonate together but are less effective on their own.

One caveat to that bit of criticism, however, was that I might have enjoyed the experience of piecing all these parts together more had I understood what I was supposed to be doing from the start. I’d heard The Starless Sea was excellent and magical but without any details about what made it such. I also haven’t read Erin Morgenstern’s breakout debut The Night Circus. Though both novels stand alone, being more familiar with Morgenstern’s work might have prepared me better for what awaited me in The Starless Sea. Or maybe it wouldn’t have changed my reading at all; it’s impossible to say.

Since I can only speak for my own experience reading, here is the blunt truth: at times during the first half of The Starless Sea, reading sometimes felt like a bit of a chore. I eventually liked Zachary but never as much as the supporting characters. The fairy tale-like stories stuffed into the first few sections were dreamy but so disconnected I had a hard time keeping track of them, let alone caring. The ending was solid but I still somehow felt unsatisfied, like I’d forgotten to eat dinner and munched on handfuls of Lucky Charms taken directly from the box instead.

They’re magically delicious!

But this is also the truth: the atmosphere was utterly magical. Looking back on the book shows impressive narrative architecture. The world seems impossibly lovely and impossibly dangerous, and the little girl in me who low-key hoped to find unicorns in any sizeable copse of trees wanted to dive right in. While Zachary was never a terribly engaging main character for me, the people surrounding him were interesting (late in the book, spoiler, we get a glimpse into what the friend he left behind in the real world has been up to, and I would gladly read a 500-page novel about her over Zachary any day). And Morgenstern’s writing is rich and delightful.

I got this book from the digital library (thanks, coronavirus) and I’m glad for it. I can’t imagine a scenario in which I read The Starless Sea again—there’s far too much to read to spend time re-reading books you don’t love. But I’m also not sad that I read it, or that I pushed through when I wanted to stop. The Starless Sea wasn’t quite worth my time, but it might be worth yours.

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