“A boy at the beginning of a story has no way of knowing that the story has begun.”
Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student who studies video games, but has a passion for story and narrative in all its forms. Visiting the nearly-deserted library between terms, Zachary stumbles across an old book of short stories, an improperly catalogued and mysterious donation to the university’s collection. But what is truly remarkable about this book is that Zachary is in it; the third story perfectly describes a real incident from his childhood, one that he never dared to speak of, let alone commit to paper. Yet here it is, recorded in a book whose publication clearly predates his birth. And if his real story is recorded in Sweet Sorrows, is he to assume that the other stories, of pirates and bees, guardians and rabbits, owls and acolytes are true as well? And what then was recorded on the missing pages that have been torn from the book? Once, when he was still a child, Zachary found the magical door to the place he always longed for, but he didn’t open it, for fear that the magic would not be real. When he went back the next day, the door was gone. Now, his door is calling to him once more, but this time there are those who do not want him to him to open it, because a war is raging beyond the threshold, and Zachary may be the key to victory, or destruction.
Coming eight years on the heels of Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel The Night Circus, The Starless Sea is divided into six books within books. At first, alternating chapters from Zachary’s perspective are interleaved with fragments from his mysterious library find. As his adventure progresses, he encounters two more magical volumes, including Fortunes and Fables, which belongs to the handsome and enigmatic Dorian, and The Ballad of Simon of Eleanor, which tells the story of a love out of time, and a man who was lost because of it. Eventually, the missing fragments of Sweet Sorrows begin to surface. Later still, Morgenstern layers in excerpts from the diary of Zachary’s friend Kat, one of the few people who seems to notice or care when he goes missing from the university in pursuit of answers, desperate to discover the provenance of the book, and ascertain once and for all whether the world it describes might be real and reachable.
The Starless Sea is the story of a magical library, but also something much more impossible than that. It is a story of doorways, and possibilities, of choices and their consequences. Zachary rejects the call of his door on the first encounter (as heroes are wont to do), only to have to live with the regret until he is not entirely sure that the door was ever real at all. It is a story that is less about individual people than it is about our collective propensity for storytelling, and our need to make meaning, and myth, and symbol into impossibly overlapping confections without beginning or end. It is about our love affair with the concept of Fate, and our fear that it might be real, and the way we both cling to it, and lash out against it. If you love stories more than you love breathing, this is the book for you.
A colleague mentioned to me that she tried to listen to The Starless Sea as an audiobook and gave up. With short chapters and quickly shifting narrators, and blurring boundaries between reality and story, I’m not sure that this is a book that lends itself well to the audio format. It is a story that demands your full attention from start to finish. Giving it anything less can only diminish the enjoyment of putting together the pieces to see the full mosaic. It is a story told in fragments that add up to something greater than the sum of their parts. The Starless Sea feels whimsical but its multilayered magic is obviously painstakingly constructed.
I started out reading this book in giant gulps, impatient to devour it whole, only to slow as the number of remaining pages dwindled, both eager to discover how it would end—“the story wanted an ending. Endings are what gives stories meaning”—and reluctant for it to be over, even if “the world is strange and endings are not truly endings.” Fortunately, this is undoubtedly the type of book that will reward rereading, and I look forward to being consumed by it again sometime soon.
Looking for more magical doors? Try Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
Looking for more magic hiding in plain sight? Try Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
Looking for more magic libraries? Try Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson