As I’ve said before, no judgment on how your reading life is going in this time of uncertainty and pandemic. If you barely have the mental capacity to read board books, that’s okay. If you want to lose yourself in intricate worlds that have very little to do with this one (a little escapism), that’s also okay. If you’re in that latter category, boy, do I have a book for you! It’s a novel about books and lovers of books and stories and guardians of stories. It’s intricately plotted, one ongoing story interspersed with a multitude of other stories, all of which turn out to have something to do with the main story, which also has something to do with those stories. It’s The Starless Sea, by Erin Morgenstern, and it is utterly engrossing, like stepping into a different world that sometimes connects in startling ways with our world.
Erin Morgenstern previously wrote The Night Circus, and if you haven’t read that, stop reading this review immediately and rush to read it, a Romeo and Juliet story with competing wizards, a magical circus that appears in places only at night and with no warning, and gorgeous, lush language and images. When a book is that good, I’m even more excited to find something else written by the author, in hopes the author’s magic extends to more than one book. In this case, Morgenstern’s magic certainly goes beyond just the wonders of The Night Circus.
The central character is Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a graduate student at a university in Vermont, who’s working on his thesis about games. His mother is a fortune teller (a fact that becomes important at various points in the book). One day he takes a strange book out of the university library, one that has no barcode and doesn’t seem to belong to any library, and as he starts reading it, he finds a story about a particular incident in his life when he was much younger and saw a door drawn on a wall but wasn’t brave enough to try to open it. He has never told anyone about that incident and wasn’t sure he remembered it himself, so finding it described so perfectly in a book that was written before he was born freaks him out, as it would just about anyone with an imagination.
He starts trying to find out more about the book, how it came to the library, how it came to him in particular, and one thing leads mysteriously to another. His path takes him first to a costume party in Manhattan where he meets various strange people who will prove very important in his ongoing quest, and from there to a strange and beautiful underworld inhabited by cats and bees and strange, possibly immortal, beings. He reads stories and then meets characters in those stories; he’s pursued by a secret society with sinister intentions toward him and toward the underworld, he meets and loses people he cares about, all in pursuit of the Starless Sea which seems to be the heart of the world.
His story, mysterious and appealing as it is, is only one of the many interspersed in the book, some of which are supposedly in books other people are reading and carrying around with them (and may I just say here that the love the characters have for particular books warms my heart? These people are not just devoted readers, but true bibliophiles). They read like fairy tales, or fragments of fairy tales, where the sun and moon meet together at a particular inn every so often, where owl kings rule and are killed by magic swords, where people meet in a room outside time and because they’re on different timelines they often go years between seeing and talking to each other, and the like. There’s a series of entries from a notebook kept by one of the characters, describing her attempts to find Zachary after he disappears (we know what happened to him, in the underworld, but she doesn’t, though she finds some pretty strange stuff in her search). There isn’t a missing piece, or an extraneous detail, though you have to pay attention to remember who some of the characters from the early stories are, especially when those characters show up in the flesh in Zachary’s story.
The language is lush and delightful, the descriptions inventive and beautiful, and throughout it all I couldn’t help admiring Morgenstern’s wild and generous imagination. If you’ve read The Night Circus, you know what to expect. If not, well, it’s quite a ride.
This is not a book to read if you can’t concentrate, if you can’t keep track of a number of plotlines and timelines, but if you’re ready to read something that creates and pulls you into a whole world of danger and wonder, you owe it to yourself to check out The Starless Sea.