Eight years on from the release of her beloved debut The Night Circus—a sumptuous, circus-set period fantasy about tragic love and fighting against fate—Erin Morgenstern has returned with The Starless Sea, an altogether odder, more ambitious, equally lyrical work filled to overflowing with themes of destiny and the power of stories, an enrapturing mystery laden with gorgeous prose. It’s a complex tale, befitting its long gestation: a literary labyrinth comprised of several interlocking books-within-books that showcases Morgenstern’s ability to create powerful imagery and singular set pieces.
It begins with a book called Sweet Sorrows, which a young man name Zachary unearths in a corner of his university library. Flipping through it, he notices the book seems to depict a scene from his own life—an odd encounter with a doorway outside his mother’s shop when he was younger. Intrigued and unnerved, Zachary attempts to find out more about the book and the unusual motif (a bee, a key, and a sword) that features in it, which he also recalls from that past encounter with the door. Soon, the slim volume will take him to places he never imagined, from a strange literary masquerade in New York, to a vast underground library with a clockwork heart, and finally to the shores of the fabled Starless Sea itself—an impossible subterranean ocean. Along the way, he’ll encounter pirates, artists, spies, librarians, and two warring secret societies trying to steer the world toward or away from a terrible fate. It’s clear Zachary and his shadowy enemies and allies are part of a much grander story, but the question remains: whose story is it? And how will it end?
Morgenstern understands the value of a good mystery. At first, the myriad parts of The Starless Sea seem to exist without much connective tissue; the novel alternates between Zachary’s adventures following the secrets of Sweet Sorrows, stories from various portentous books he encounters along the way (each section of the novel is titled after a different one), and historical interludes. It’s clear that something larger is unfolding behind the pages, but Morgenstern takes it slow, filling in the background details first and only gradually bringing the true extent of the intrigue into focus via various in-universe book excerpts and brief snippets of the past. Each new reference or repeated motif adds to the backdrop of Zachary’s literary mystery, offering intriguing glimpses of the ongoing war between the destructive “Collectors” and the keepers of the unusual subterranean harbor where most of the story takes place. It makes for a propulsive reading experience: many chapters end on a cliffhanger in Zachary’s story, to be followed by a chapter of a fictional book or a fragment of text written on origami revealing a little more of the novel’s wider, weirder world.
The books-within-a-book structure allows Morgenstern’s facility for lyricism to come to the fore. Her prose has a timeless quality, capturing the feeling of long-forgotten fairy tales about owls, swords, arcane rituals, and unusual cities, and she allows herself room to stretch, experimenting with multiple forms, from flash-fiction to abstract poetry. In one section, the plot-heavy chapters are broken up by fragments of missing pages from one of the fictional books, creating another nested mystery of sorts, the feeling of discovering something lost that has been rediscovered, but without the proper context necessary to understand it. Like The Night Circus, The Starless Sea is stronger as a collection of indelible moments than as a complete narrative, but that’s no strong knock against it when the individual moments are so beautifully wrought. Their cumulative effect feels something like vanishing down the labyrinth with Zachary, piecing together disparate, cryptic clues alongside him.
The Starless Sea is a novel as vast, labyrinthine, and versatile as the strange body of water at its center. In its ambitious structure, vast scope, and playful use of fabulism and myth, Erin Morgenstern has constructed an unusual but entirely engaging puzzle box of a literary fantasy-mystery. While it took eight years to arrive on our shelves, it was well worth the wait.