Review: The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

I was sent this book as an advance listening copy via libro.fm for reviewing purposes, but all opinions are my own.

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From the New York Times bestselling author of The Night Circus, a timeless love story set in a secret underground world–a place of pirates, painters, lovers, liars, and ships that sail upon a starless sea.

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.

What Zachary finds in this curious place is more than just a buried home for books and their guardians–it is a place of lost cities and seas, lovers who pass notes under doors and across time, and of stories whispered by the dead. Zachary learns of those who have sacrificed much to protect this realm, relinquishing their sight and their tongues to preserve this archive, and also those who are intent on its destruction.

Together with Mirabel, a fierce, pink-haired protector of the place, and Dorian, a handsome, barefoot man with shifting alliances, Zachary travels the twisting tunnels, darkened stairwells, crowded ballrooms, and sweetly-soaked shores of this magical world, discovering his purpose–in both the mysterious book and in his own life.

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★★★✩

First and foremost: I enjoyed listening to this audiobook, I thought all narrators (full cast!! I love full casts!!!) were absolutely right for the parts they were narrating. They made this book flow well and fast and made me want to keep listening even during the parts that I found confusing, and I truly thought that my experience was enhanced by having listened to it as opposed to reading it.

Now, I do also think that this is a book that could’ve benefited from being read and taking one’s time to truly absorb the various stories more, but I am also aware that I wouldn’t picked it up at all if it wasn’t for the chance to listen to it.

The Starless Sea is a beautiful book with beautiful writing that will speak to a lot of readers, so why the three stars and not more? This is a case of it’s not you, it’s me: if I had to judge this book objectively alone I would probably give it 5 stars; my overall enjoyment of it was closer to 3 stars, and I wondered if I should do a mathematical average and end up giving it a solid 4, but that didn’t seem to convey the fact that this was, ultimately, a book that wasn’t for me.

Books about books and stories are, in theory, a great idea, and I see many readers do love them and I have in the past too. But there comes a point where if I feel like I’m being manipulated into this narrative then I get annoyed and stop enjoying this aspect of the book. If this aspect is what constitutes the core of the book, then it goes without saying that I lose interest in the book itself pretty easily.

In truth, I could tell you a bit about the first 20% of the book, where we get to know our protagonist, Zachary Ezra Rawlins, and not much else. It’s not that I lost focus or even that I didn’t enjoy it, because as I stated at the beginning, my listening experience was enjoyable and I even went out of my way to keep listening when I was done with my chores (that I do while listening to audiobooks). It’s just that the book shifts from Stories to our Main Story and yes, there is a point that the book makes, and I feel like I either missed it or it was truly just: “books and stories are nice.”

Well, no shit.

I don’t know, but I truly don’t get what’s so alluring as a person who reads a lot to feel like I’m being lectured about how good stories and books are. I’m not saying there is no place for this book in this world, because there obviously is, but I just don’t like feeling so manipulated into something I’m well aware of. This is obviously my opinion and I know people who read even more than I do and who absolutely adored this.

I did however really like, in the first part, the fact that stories were being talked about in a broader sense than just books. Zachary is a gaming student and he spends some time reflecting on the nature of videogame narratives vs books, and there is a scene where he and a group of students have a discussion about this topic and I thought that was the highlight of the whole book for me. As someone who doesn’t play a lot anymore (because….I don’t have a console or a proper gaming laptop. RIP) but is in love with story-heavy games, it was so refreshing to see videogames that are heavy on plot and narrative being treated as equals to other forms of fiction.

After this first part and after something happens to Zachary, it was all about hearing different stories and trying to piece together the threads of a common narrative, which admittedly would have been easier if one was reading in physical form or in ebook. And as the book progressed, we got to see how Zachary’s own story intertwined with the other ones, and, well, you get the gist of it.

As for the single stories, I found some of them truly beautiful and that’s where Morgenstern’s writing really shone through. However, it was kind of hard to keep track of everything. It’s the kind of thing that would require a reread to really understand fully and maybe you’d find something new every time you reread, but I’m just not going to do that.

One aspect I really did love was the diversity and the fact that this book was so normally and casually gay. The main character is gay, his love interest is nonspecified queer, and there’s two sapphic characters, and there are multiple POC characters including the protagonist. Despite this, I unfortunately didn’t love the romance, which I found too rushed despite being promised a slow burn (they get together late, but the attraction is more of the insta-love type). There also seems to be an age gap and I’m really not fond of that (the MC is 25 I believe but I couldn’t find any info on how old the LI is. nothing problematic, just not my cup of tea).

So, overall, would I recommend this? It really depends on you. If you’ve loved The Night Circus there’s a high chance you’ll love this too. If this doesn’t seem very appealing to you for the reasons I myself didn’t give it a higher rating, maybe read a few more reviews to make up your mind.

2 thoughts on “Review: The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

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