The Starless Sea – Beauty And Dreams Personified In A Body Of Water

81h2bkqvsgylOur second-place book in The Quill To Live best-of-2019 list was The Starless Sea, by Erin Morgenstern. However, given that the book was released about a week before we had to make the list, we unfortunately did not have a chance to review it yet. Now, we are remedying that and are here to give you a sales pitch for a positively incredible book. Given that we rated The Starless Sea as the second-best book that came out in 2019, you can probably guess that this is going to be a laudatory review. But, given the astounding success and popularity of Morgenstern’s first novel, The Night Circus, I doubt I will be the first to tell you that her second book is another masterpiece that will emotionally move and astound you.

The Starless Sea was a weirdly personal book for me and I don’t really know where to start with the plot. At the highest level, the story follows Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a son of a fortune-teller who moves through life without a lot of direction. He eventually stumbles upon a secret entrance to a strange magical underground library that is oceanic in size. However, the library is clearly not what it once was and is, in fact, showing signs of imminent destruction. Can Zachary puzzle out the mysteries of what happened to this titanic magical place and do something to save it?

The Starless Sea is a quiet, somber, and evocative love letter to storytelling. It feels like The Night Circus and The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, had a love child that was cherished and well raised. It is a slow and meandering book that explores captivating mysteries and masterfully controls the release of information to keep you fully invested. To me, its most powerful feature is its ability to effortlessly transport you into the role of the protagonist. The Starless Sea is both a story about stepping into books and appreciating the power of storytelling and it is a catalyst to pull the reader entirely into its own pages and tales. In addition, the characters are phenomenal. Full disclosure, the main character and yours truly share a frankly alarming number of similarities, so it was a lot harder to shake biases and give the book a neutral assessment than usual. Yet, I think almost anyone who picks up this book would be hard-pressed not to fall in love with the small cast. The single thing I didn’t love about the book was how few characters there were. Morgenstern seems to prefer to focus on a very small group of individuals to tell her stories. While this worked extremely well in The Night Circus, where the romantic focus benefited from its smaller focused cast; The Starless Sea was about an entire magical world and the emptiness sometimes broke my immersion. Then again, one of the themes of the book is feeling isolated and alone in the world at large, so even the one nitpick I had still contributed to the majesty of this novel. The tight cast does allow for a lot of powerful character development that would be harder to accomplish with a larger group of people. Given my similarities to the protagonist, I found his introspections particularly insightful and felt like I learned things about myself over the course of the book.

Despite all the praise I have heaped on The Starless Sea, I have saved its most powerful asset for last: the prose. For better or worse, Erin Morgenstern is a sample size of one when it comes to her writing style. She has a unique storytelling style that is whimsical, aesthetically gorgeous, and polished at the same time. There are a number of “parts” in The Starless Sea that break up the story. Each part has two different POVs: one from Zachary that progresses the overall story forward, and one that consists of chapters from a book from the Starless Sea. Each book in the various parts represents a different character in the narrative and helps to subtly expand on their character. The books all have unique styles of storytelling and do a lot to make the primary cast feel very deep. The books also do an incredible job of getting the reader emotionally invested in the story and help to create huge moments of payoff.

On top of the prose feeling like borderline poetry, the world that Morgenstern builds is a delight to explore. The Sea is a truly wondrous and imaginative place, and you would have to have a heart of stone to not feel its call. The sea spills off the pages as Morgenstern captures so many small details like grains of sand at the ocean’s edge. From the way the stories are kept, to the way the entrances are guarded, to the people who travel its waves, the Starless Sea feels like a real place the reader could go out and find. Morgenstern has created a living and breathing new world, and I want very badly to go there.

The Starless Sea is a masterpiece of prose, character growth, and worldbuilding. It is a treasure that is unique from other books I have read, and a monument to the skill and imagination of Erin Morgenstern. If you have ever felt that stories are more than words on a page, if you have ever wanted to change the choices you have made in life, or if you have ever wanted to be part of something bigger – The Starless Sea will tackle your heart in an explosive hug. I have only captured a fraction of its magic and ideas in this review, but you will have to discover many of its secrets by yourself.

Rating: The Starless Sea – 10/10
-Andrew

The Night Circus – Precision And Beauty Like A Well Made Clock

518f-dysfql-_sx322_bo1204203200_The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, is a popular book that has sat on my to-do shelf for some time. I have a number of friends who have read it, and I found myself discouraged by their seemingly polarized reactions. Many thought it was one of the best books they have ever read, while a different number thought it was a pile of garbage that was insanely overrated. I decided to take the plunge this week and found that I can see where both opinions come from. However, I definitely fall into the first category of reactions.

The Night Circus has a slightly deceptive back cover. The blurb on the back claims that the book is about two dueling magicians using a wonderful circus as a venue. This is true in broad terms, but I feel that some who read this short description will come in with expectations that might not be met. The book tells the story of Celia and Marco, two magicians who are bound to fight to the death in a magical showdown within the walls of the night circus. But, the competition is less of a wild west standoff and more of a rap battle/baking competition. Each of the two magicians alternates adding wonders to the circus that are judged by their various patrons. This continues until one of the two magicians fails to produce something wonderful or breaks. So, if you were interested in this book because you were looking for a fast-paced magical duel, you are going to be sorely disappointed (which is how many of the people who didn’t like this book seem to feel).

On the other hand, if you are looking for your imagination to explode with wonder and delight and to experience the world in a new way that leaves you reeling, well then you might be in the right place. The goal of this competition between Marco and Celia is for them to blend showmanship and actual magic into a mix that both blows the mind of the circus patrons and doesn’t feel so completely impossible that the patrons suspect there is something else in play other than sleight of hand. Morgenstern walks this line fabulously, crafting tent after tent that feel like something you might experience at an actual circus – but that fill you with awe every time you enter them. Morgenstern’s ability to walk this line, and the superb writing quality, makes The Night Circus feel like a deeply immersive book that pulls you in and never lets go from start to finish. The circus is just so damn cool. I found myself rereading descriptions to take in every single detail as fully as I could. For example, the massive clock at the front of the circus (and visible on the cover) was a thing of profound beauty, and I read the description of it at least five times. The plot also has a number of tricks up its sleeves that surprise and delight – never remaining predictable – while also telling a wonderful love story.

Spoilers (unless you read the back cover), Celia and Marco slowly fall in love. I am not a huge romantic, but I couldn’t help but enjoy watching these two slowly (and unsurprisingly) fall for each other over the course of the competition – further complicating the game. All the characters in the story are wonderful, but Celia and Marco are particularly hard to dislike. Their warm personalities, difficult lives, and perseverance in the face of adversity had me both identifying with them and looking up to them as role models at the same time. The progression of their romance felt both real and adorable – but my one complaint for the book as a whole was how Morgenstern handled the dialogue between Marco and Celia towards the end of the book. There are just some recurring lines that felt a little cringy near the end (as their love suddenly felt weirdly intense). This feeling on my end definitely came from the fact that the passage of time in the book is a bit abrupt. The book skips around in its time line, and will often jump multiple years forward at any moment. Most of the time this didn’t cause any issues for me, but it does make the development of the protagonists’ feelings feel a little abrupt. While only a few pages pass for you, several years pass for the characters. This leads to a little bit of a mismatch in perceived timing, but it was only a small thing in an otherwise perfect book.

The Night Circus captured my imagination and made me feel like I was inside the book. The book has left a deep and lasting impression with me, and I keep finding myself drawn back to the circus like many of its patrons in the story. There is just so much to like here that I hope everyone has a chance to pick up and enjoy this beautiful story. It has a slow pace, but you will luxuriate in it instead of wallow. So wait for sundown, get in a comfy chair, and go through the gates of The Night Circus.

Rating: The Night Circus – 9.5/10
-Andrew