Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel, “The Night Circus,” was a massive bestseller worldwide. It has taken eight years for her second novel, and fans who enjoyed the entrancing world-building and beautifully drawn world of “The Night Circus” will fall in love with “The Starless Sea,” which will be released on Nov. 5.
“The Starless Sea” begins with an unusual book, found hiding in the stacks of a university library. (Even though the university in the book is located in Vermont, I couldn’t help but picture the stacks at the University of Illinois Library, which are full of unusual volumes — the place where a serendipitous discovery of a mysterious book might be likely.)
Zachary Ezra Rawlins checks out the book, which seems to tell the story of his life, among other fanciful tales. He’s the son of a fortune teller, and the book refers to this fact, as well as a childhood incident where he found a mysterious door painted on a wall and chooses not to enter. It’s a long-forgotten memory, but its presence in the book makes him realize that he is the protagonist of this story.
His quest takes flight from there.
It begins as an attempt to discover the origins of the book, “Sweet Sorrows.” He has a few clues: the name of the donor who bequeathed the book to the library and three tiny symbols stamped onto the back of the otherwise nondescript binding: a sword, a key and a bee. The book not only makes reference to Zachary’s past — it includes two other tales, one about a pirate and the other about a society of people who serve as guardians of stories. These stories don’t seem related, but as the plot unfurls, the threads pull together.
After a variety of dead-end searches, Zachary stumbles across a random photo on the internet that shows a woman at a masked ball wearing necklaces featuring the sword, key and bee. It’s an annual literary gala, and coincidentally, the next one is happening soon.
He purchases a ticket, attends the party and his life is transformed when he discovers he has been followed and that someone powerful and dangerous wants their book back. Zachary soon finds himself in a secret underground world full of fantastical scenes straight out of fantasy and fairy tales, bursting with symbolism, shadowy characters with uncertain motivations and lots of cats (the unofficial companion animal of book lovers). To give away more would detract from the immersive reading experience that the book provides, and the pleasures of experiencing the various twists and turns provide.
“The Starless Sea” is, at its heart, a love story to stories. Early in the book, Zachary wishes for “a reading major ... no response papers, no exams, no analysis, just the reading.”
I think this is a common wish for book lovers — I know I have wished for this many times. Morgenstern draws from a variety of inspirations, from fairy tales and fantasy to video games, especially games where the choices players make determine the course of the story. It’s not a coincidence that Zachary’s research is in the interactive storytelling in video games. In a way, his immersion in the topic makes him an ideal candidate for his unique journey, as he is able to see how the choices he makes are part of a larger story.
Nothing in “The Starless Sea” is straightforward. There are interludes and digressions, characters and their motivations shift and change. Good and evil are somewhat ambiguous. Paths are rarely clear, and choices always have meaning, even if that meaning is not easily revealed. Symbols are everywhere, and it takes time and patient, close reading to figure out what the symbols mean and how they connect.
Near the middle of the book, Zachary has a conversation with the Keeper, one of the denizens of the underground world he’s exploring. The Keeper reminds him that “each of us has our own path ... symbols are for interpretation, not definition.” It’s that process of interpretation that is part of the beauty of this book. Nothing is handed to the reader here — it’s a gift to be slowly unwrapped and revealed piece by piece.
This isn’t a quick and breezy read. It’s thoughtful and intelligent, full of exquisite turns of phrase that demand to be read and reread. It’s also entertaining, and to spend time immersed in Morgenstern’s intricate world is a delightful and memorable experience.