Book Review: "The Starless Sea" by Erin Morgenstern

Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student in Vermont when he discovers a mysterious book hidden in the stacks. As he turns the pages, entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, key collectors, and nameless acolytes, he reads something strange: a story from his own childhood.

Bewildered by this inexplicable book and desperate to make sense of how his own life came to be recorded, Zachary uncovers a series of clues - a bee, a key, and a sword - that lead him to a masquerade party in New York, to a secret club, and through a doorway to an ancient library hidden far below the surface of the earth.

The Starless Sea is not my first encounter with author Erin Morgenstern. My first encounter with Morgenstern’s beguiling talent for writing came from her first novel, The Night Circus. Although both novels exist independently of one another, I won’t be able to keep myself from comparing the two in this review. To get to the point: I wish I had read The Starless Sea before The Night Circus. The latter of the two exhibits Morgenstern’s talent far better than this novel does.

Morgenstern’s talent for beautiful setting, interesting magic realism and mystery are all present here. What isn’t present are the intricate depths to the characters like you would find in The Night Circus. Zachary is charming and has a knack for asking the right questions. We don’t get much else on this front and the adventure begins. He later falls in love with another character that remains absent from the first half of the story. I scratched my head at that romance because of how little I knew about the love interest by the time Zachary declared he was in love. Side characters served their purposes and offered interesting insight, but everything seemed in passing. Once the moment was done, it was done. Once the revelation was experienced, it was time to move onto the next event. I find this shocking considering the cast of characters in The Night Circus were all flawed and relatable individuals you could connect deeply with.

It would be too harsh to say The Starless Sea is a flop, however, because I did enjoy the novel. The concept of the starless sea is a dream in itself and a place every reader wants to visit. The mystery of this story is a fascinating one. The characters, though simpler for someone of Morgenstern’s talent, manage to make the strongest moments of this story stand out. If you haven’t read any of Morgenstern’s work, I suggest reading The Starless Sea before The Night Circus so you can appreciate the latter more.

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