The Starless Sea: Labyrinthine library of your dreams

Catalogue record for The starless seaIn 2011 Erin Morgenstern's first novel, The night circus (a book that grew out of her NaNoWriMo efforts) treated readers to a fantastical tale of magic, star-crossed love, and fate. Her second novel, The starless sea, though set in a very different world returns to these same story elements in a decadent mash up of Alice in Wonderland, The Da Vinci Code, Labyrinth, and role-playing video games, with a dash of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere thrown in for good measure.

Unlike The night circus, The starless sea has a (mostly) contemporary setting and follows its protagonist down a rabbit hole, through the looking-glass and into a meta-tale of story. The whole thing is over the top in its lushness - Morgenstern's settings are the opposite of sparse; everything is dripping gold, crumbling marble - if you love visualising fantastical interiors and landscapes then you'll find a lot to enjoy in her writing. For me, well, sometimes I just want to get on with the story without knowing what the seats are upholstered with... but fortunately she keeps the action ticking along at a good pace. Hers are the kind of books that are great company if you're looking to escape from the mundane and the ordinary. Every new chapter features a setting or tableau that is cinematically sumptuous - it's not so much gritty urban fantasy as it is glittering.

But what is it about? On the surface (in more ways than one) it follows Zachary Rawlins, a man who as a boy once saw an ornate and realistic looking door painted on an ordinary wall and had the urge to reach out and turn the door knob. This, it turns out, was a missed opportunity. As an adult he has the chance to unravel a complex mystery filled with secret societies, symbolism, literary references, and danger. But it's very much also a celebration of story, storytelling and imagination.

With its protagonist an expert in videogame narrative, a setting that's maze-like, and self-referential nods to "side quests" within the main story, it's also got a healthy dose of gaming, and even DnD in its DNA. If someone in the industry isn't currently pitching The Starless Sea as a future gaming franchise I'd be very surprised indeed. It wouldn't be the first fantasy fiction title to be adapted into a game, as fans of The Witcher will be happy to tell you. 

But back to the story. The aforementioned painted door leads to "a Harbour on the Starless Sea" - a subterranean maze of tunnels and rooms, hidden doors, and ancient knowledge. Its every corner is filled with books and stories, and quite a few enigmatic cats (another Alice in Wonderland connection). Not quite in the real world, and sometimes out of Time itself, it exists as a repository of story.

In some ways it's a very simple tale. We follow an unlikely hero on a quest to solve a mystery. He meets dangerous but beautiful people. He forms attachments and allegiances. He makes choices and finds his fate. An attractive stranger develops into a possible love interest... if he's to be trusted. But there is much, much more to it. There are stories within stories, some of which seem to be linked or have a common theme. The main story circles back on itself when we get another perspective on earlier events. The book itself is as many-branched as the passages of the fictional library it is set in. It's a twisty, curling thing... but who wants to go on a ride that's all straight lines?

If in her first novel Morgenstern created a "circus of dreams" then in her second it seems that she is intent on making a "library of dreams". A magical otherworld peopled with eccentric characters with mysterious backstories. And if you make the mistake of meandering down the path of wondering how the physics of it all works you will only find yourself at an artfully arranged, manuscript-strewn dead end... so I'd advise you not to. Simply enjoy the spectacle of it and let The Starless Sea wash over you.

The Starless Sea

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