When Zachary Ezra Rawlins was a child, he had a chance to walk through an impossible, magical door and missed it. Now, as an adult, he feels adrift, constantly longing for something he doesn’t know how to find. But when, in his campus library, he stumbles upon a mysterious book, Sweet Sorrows—a volume which contains a true story about Zachary’s childhood—he finds himself on a quest to reach the Starless Sea, a hidden place where stories both live and come to life, empowered by myth and magic. Zachary isn’t alone in his search: tracked by a secret organisation determined to find and destroy all doors that lead to the Starless Sea, he must untangle a web of history, secrets and fairy tales to find the truth. Can he trust Dorian, a handsome stranger of unknown allegiance? Who is the enigmatic Mirabel, really? And what will happen when the Owl King finally comes?
Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea is by turns gentle and heartfelt: a love-letter to fairy tales which exists within its own mythology. It’s about struggling to recapture childhood’s certainty of magic in your twenties when everything feels liminal and random; about what stories mean to us, and the possibility of our meaning something to them in turn. It’s a narrative lush with the aesthetics of symbolism, within which the reader, like the characters, is invited to find their own meaning. And it’s a fable about the inevitability of change, which can be both wrenching and beautiful—oftentimes simultaneously. It’s also a story about love, not just the romantic kind, but between friends and for concepts like storytelling and adventure.
Reviewing the actual substance of the book is a difficult proposition. Given its length, the plot is surprisingly simple, with a great deal of space being taken up by stories-within-the-story and indulgent descriptions. The writing style itself is fluid in a way that comes from long sentences with minimal punctuation: this adds to the fairy tale ambience, giving the impression of a story being spoken aloud. This occasionally becomes a bit much, as when encountering a paragraph-long sentence without a comma to its name. Generally, though, the novel carries itself with all the aplomb you could wish of a story about stories, one that features stories within stories as a central narrative device, and which is self-aware on both these points, without becoming narcissistically circular.
The plot is a slow-burn by design: the novel is longer than it strictly needs to be because the embellishments are half the point. It’s the kind of novel which will, I suspect, reward rereading, as early details and stories-within-stories are steadily revealed to have greater meaning later. It’s an introvert’s portal fantasy, where the magic door takes you to a quiet, softly furnished room with a sentient kitchen, infinite bookshelves, and a plethora of cats, where you can still find a classic quest to undertake if you follow the right clues.
It also features—and this is, unashamedly, my favourite of its aspects—a sweet queer romance, in which our shy, Black, fantasy-loving protagonist, Zachary, finds himself both captivated by and captivating Dorian, a storytelling stranger, as their paths cross in the search for the Starless Sea. Like the rest of the novel, the whole thing unfolds with a sort of dreamlike, fairy-tale logic that works by dint of being consistent with the overall milieu. There are other romances sprinkled in, by way of interconnected fairy tales, but Zachary and Dorian’s is the central, most significant one—and I love that Morgenstern has effectively hinged her whole fablesque mythos on a romance between two queer men of colour.
And yet, for all that The Starless Sea is based around stories and storytelling, it borrows very little from pre-existing myths and fairytales; which is to say, its stories-within-stories share some of their themes and conventions, but the actual content is largely original. Six motifs in particular are integral to the narrative—keys, crowns, feathers, hearts, swords and bees—and, since these are all symbols of long standing in various traditions, they carry exactly as much weight as the reader believes they do. This is clearly a deliberate decision, and given the fact that Zachary’s mother is a fortune-teller who reads both people and tarot cards, I’d argue that a reiterated line within the book itself—“Symbols are for interpretation, not definition”—is crucial to understanding it. The Starless Sea is intended to be, not a means of defining stories or their essence, but a symbolic way of interpreting them. It’s a narrative which rewards you to the exact extent of your emotional investment in it, but which will feel correspondingly shallower the more you expect it to define itself beyond this.
In detaching Starless from existing myths and cultures, my suspicion is that Morgenstern was trying to craft an escapist aesthetic that anyone might dip into: one without ties to a particular tradition, and which therefore had no need to address or attempt reconciliation between their differences. She still includes passing references to stories as a global phenomenon—cherry blossoms and a character travelling to Edo; Zachary growing up thinking of orishas as distant family members; mentions of gods plural rather than god singular—but still, overwhelmingly, the imagery of her fables and stories-within-stories is Western. There are inns and knights, pirates and roses, snow and wine and castles; but no substantial acknowledgement of the legacies of even those non-Western fables that Western audiences could still be assumed to recognise, like the Arabian Nights or tales of the Eastern zodiac. And while multiple characters, including the protagonist, are people of colour, there’s no examination of race or culture or how this affects them, even when we have a white man from the 1800s falling in love with a woman of colour.
This felt most salient in the case of Zachary, whose mother is a fortune-teller from New Orleans. It’s not that there’s anything unrealistic about a Black woman from Louisiana telling tarot for a living, but when it’s the only real cultural detail we have about her and her son, it feels a bit like an easy stereotype. And while Zachary himself spends most of the novel outside the bounds of the mundane world, there are still times when you might reasonably expect his identity to influence his internal monologue, such as when Dorian recruits him to steal a book—which results in his being targeted for retribution by a powerful white woman— or when he’s thinking about the stories which speak to him most as a person.
Having also just finished Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January—a story about stories which also features a protagonist of colour whose romantic arc is integral to the plot, who also discovers the magic of doors through an improbable book, and who is likewise equally concerned with a threatening society which exists to close those doors—I don’t feel capable of reviewing The Starless Sea without pausing to compare the two novels. Given their striking thematic and structural similarities, it’s even stranger to note that they were released within months of each other by different publishing houses: January by Redhook in September 2019, and Starless by Doubleday in November 2019. It’s the sort of coincidence that would feel meaningful if included in either novel, and therefore feels doubly pleasing, as though the magic of stories that both books cherish has, by happy accident, seeped out into the world and made them fellows.
So, for comparative purposes: in The Ten Thousand Doors of January, narrator-protagonist January Scaller relates her life as the ward of one Cornelius Locke, a wealthy white man who employs her father to hunt down relics and marvels for his private collection. After a childhood encounter with a magical Door to elsewhere, January relates the incident to Mr Locke, who punishes her for lying and thereinafter does his best to stamp out any interest she might have in the fantastical. But when an older January finds a mysterious book about travelling between worlds, The Ten Thousand Doors, her curiosity is rekindled, setting her on a collision course with Mr Locke and his society of faithfuls. Aided by her loyal dog, Bad, her childhood friend, Samuel, and her governess, Jane, January must unravel the truth about the closing Doors—and her own origins—in order to survive.
For all that the two books are remarkably similar in many respects, their narrative trajectories differ in several crucial ways. While Starless is geared around exploring stories wholly of its own invention, for instance, January makes more use of established myth and legend; a difference reflected in the fact that, whereas the doors in Harrow’s work lead to multiple other realities, Morgenstern’s lead only to the Starless Sea. Where Starless takes place in the modern world, referencing video games and movies along with novels, January is set in the early twentieth century, with the characters reading magazines, books and anthologies from the period. And—most importantly of all—where Starless treats stories like a deck of tarot cards, as universal symbols of divination, January treats them as being fundamentally anchored to issues of identity, class, and culture.
Harrow’s work, then, stands in stark contrast to Morgenstern’s. January Scaller is always painfully aware of what it means to be Brown and a woman in 1900s Vermont, especially in the eyes of Mr Locke, who sees a need for her to be “civilised” and who views her appearance largely as a curiosity. When she fails to keep to “her place,” she is punished; at one point, she is forcibly committed to an asylum, with Jane and Samuel—respectively a Black woman and an Italian man—unable to visit her due to their races. In January, the Doors that exist show a concrete link between the unique cultures and stories of a region and that of the nearest other world, while still allowing for the existence of original places. Most notable of these is the Written, a world where some are born with the ability to make magic through writing, and which is the most prominently featured non-Earth location. Yet there is also a once-dead world now populated by escapees from early twentieth century America: people of colour and queer couples and other marginalised folks who’ve gone in search of a less restricted life.
I couldn’t help feeling, then, that The Ten Thousand Doors of January speaks more honestly to the truth of what stories are, and is therefore the more successful paean to their importance. Stories are not objective creatures: they inhabit us as much as we inhabit them, and especially when we pare them down to the bones of myth and legend, the marrow will always be flavoured by the cultures that gave them life. Even fairy tales have substance, and while Morgenstern’s invented tales are proven literally true in the end, it’s not quite the same as if they’d had a deeper, more fundamentally human meaning to begin with. Yet on one thematic point, both books agree: that doors to elsewhere are how change gets into the world, and that change, though sometimes frightening, is ultimately necessary, lest we doom ourselves to stagnation, hierarchy, and the endless repetition of old mistakes.
It’s a testament to Morgenstern’s skill as a writer that, despite these flaws, I still truly enjoyed The Starless Sea: this sort of omission can often be a dealbreaker for me. The Starless Sea works as what it is because Morgenstern commits to it, because her concepts are beautiful, and because we care about her characters. That the narrative trappings are ultimately more style than substance, isn’t necessarily a failing; after all, we aren’t always in the mood to acknowledge the harsher realities of the world. Sometimes it’s enough to just escape to somewhere wondrous, where impossible archives twine through a skyless harbour overlooking a sea of honey, where owl wings whisper in the dark, and where the overriding tale is one of love, and what it means to be brave enough to seek it.
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