Erin Morgenstern has been off the grid for years. After the tremendous success of her debut novel, The Night Circus, in 2011, she withdrew to the woods of the Berkshires, in the US, with no internet access. There, beyond the reach of her dedicated fans and demanding critics, she set about writing her follow-up novel: The Starless Sea.
Morgenstern’s self-imposed exile has produced a book that is as singular in style as her first, a novel that is set in the contemporary world but branches off into the realms of the mythical and magical. She offers a modern twist on classic fantasy, an elaborate quest narrative for the 21st century.
The book follows Zachary Rawlins, who was just a boy when, one day on the way to school, he noticed a door painted onto a wall. He decided not to try to open it, and the next day, the door was gone. It’s not until much later, as a post-graduate student studying video games, that his decision returns to haunt him.
Wandering the campus before semester starts, Zachary finds a mysterious old book that recounts this exact event from his childhood, with tantalising hints about where the door might have led, and other events that may or may not have come to pass. He has no idea how his story could have been written into a book, donated by an enigmatic deceased benefactor to a university library, before he was even born. His curiosity takes him to a masquerade party in New York in search of answers, and there he stumbles into a magical world of pirates and princesses, bees and keys, swords and stories.
Morgenstern offers a modern twist on classic fantasy
The Starless Sea is divided into six sections, each of which contain multiple strands that ultimately weave together. New characters are introduced, and old ones recast and reimagined, right up until the very end. This is not a linear plot: there is no three-act structure, no neat narrative arc, no beginning-middle-end. Morgenstern meanders and diverts the reader’s attention, but never unnecessarily. She maintains the story’s momentum by unravelling the knots while simultaneously braiding new ones.
Morgenstern thumbs her nose at the determined and rigorous world-building of “high fantasy” writers like Tolkien or Hobb. Her Starless Sea and its harbour are shown through a soft lens, allowing the reader to luxuriate in her writing’s beautiful ambiguity and find meaning and order of their own.
Book lovers will delight in the variety and frequency of literary references—from Raymond Chandler to Madeleine L’Engle to F. Scott Fitzgerald to The Strand bookstore.
The Starless Sea is a dreamy, magical book, rich in description and epic in scope, wistful and whimsical and foreboding all at once. Morgenstern writes for nostalgic readers, whisking them back to the days of childhood enchantment.
You can buy The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern here.