Review: The Starless Sea

Four stars

THE PLOT: ‘The Starless Sea’ by Erin Morgenstern is a literary fantasy novel about a magical underground library. When reclusive Zachary finds a mysterious book with no author, he traces its origin to a masquerade party in New York. There he meets a mysterious woman who takes him through a portal underneath the earth to a magical place filled with books. But there are those who want to seal all of the portals and stop Zachary from returning his book to the library. The only way to save it is for Zachary to race through the depths of the earth to find the end of the story.

RATING:  This book is unlike anything I’ve read. It’s a story within a story. It simultaneously makes no sense but might be the answer to the meaning of life, the universe and everything. There’s an Owl King, magic bees, and talking cats. There are random pages that never seem to connect to anything. There are metaphors and allegories; fables and diary entries. This is a book I can’t describe. You just have to read it. And while you’re reading it, you need to feel comfortable with ambiguity and just let it lead you wherever it goes. Hopefully, you’ll sink into it and sail the starless sea.

GOOD BITS: This is a book lover’s book. Or, more precisely, a story-lovers book. At first the chapters seem random because they’re fragments of different stories. This continues but little connections and hints are dropped along the way and you carefully build up the bigger picture. It’s an extremely well written book with an intricate plot and loveable characters. My favourite elements were the love story between two male characters, Katrina Hawkins and the macro-ruminations on fate, time and the essence of story. The ending, while not wholly satisfying, was fitting. I think it’s a nod to T.S. Elliot, which is a personal favourite.

NOT SO GOOD BITS: This book took me a very, very long time to read. Partly because it’s five-hundred pages and the font is small, but mostly because it’s extremely descriptive and hard to follow. You need to read each word carefully, which can be tiresome. There were several points I felt like giving up, but then a little detail would hook me, or a secret connection was revealed, and it felt like the most intelligent book in the world. Warning – this is not for the faint-hearted and it is not a typical fantasy. You need to be comfortable with a mutating form, confusing structure and plot that isn’t straightforward.

OVERALL: I’d recommend this book to lovers of ‘The OA’ (the Netflix TV series) and ‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt (writing style and atmosphere). I’ve seen a lot of reviews call this book pretentious and confusing. I’ve also seen reviews say it’s brilliant, haunting, magical and profound. In my humble opinion, I’m glad I read it. If you can get through the ambiguity and open your mind, this is a very special book indeed.