Book Review: The Starless Sea and Dreamy Meandering

“Strange, isn’t it? To love a book. When the words on the pages become so precious that they feel like part of your own history because they are. It’s nice to finally have someone read stories I know so intimately.”

Ever since I finished this book, it’s been haunting me. I’m still unsure how I should feel about it. I have very complicated feelings. Complicated. This book is everything and nothing. It does everything right and everything wrong. I ache for the stories and yet, can’t figure out what I just read.

In January, I got the opportunity to see Erin Morgenstern on tour and she was absolutely delightful, like in the ‘we could be best friends’ kind of way. Erin has only ever written one other book, The Night Circus, and I fell head over heels for it. So, the pressure was on for her to deliver a knock out story.

I waited to buy the book for this tour, and when I went to buy my ticket for the event, it was sold out. Stupid me. I posted on my social media if anyone happens to have an extra ticket to let me know. As it turned out, my friend got sick and couldn’t go and I was gifted the opportunity.

And I’m so glad I went. Because as I read the book, I was given insight from the questions she answered that night at her Q & A.

How this book is everything…

First thing I want to say – this book is presented as an experience. Much like her other book, where you feel like you are actually attending the Night Circus, this is developed without chapters and unfolds in layers. It’s sliced into sections inviting you in by telling you stories – stories written so beautifully and sensory that each was a delicious bite of words drizzled with honey.

I loved reading these stories. Many read like fairy tales, but some were poetry in disguise. Each one though was achingly beautiful. It brought a depth to the story that was unlike anything I had experienced, because my heart had grasped so tightly to each word that I lost breath. As a storyteller myself, I was in complete wonderment. Bravo!

“Everyone wants the stars. Everyone wishes to grasp that which exists out of reach. To hold the extraordinary in their hands and keep the remarkable in their pockets.”

How the book meanders and gets lost…

It’s so hard to put this book into one sentence. Let me try…

Zachary Ezra Rawlins finds a book in his college library that leads him to a secret underground library patrolled by cats where he can walk through doors that are lost in time, and eventually loses himself in stories created by the Moon and Fate and Time, and sails the Starless Sea to find the Queen of the Bees. (A nut shell with no spoilers)

So, on a positive note, this is very original, but it does have flavors of other books in it. Alice In Wonderland is very prominent throughout. There are so many references though, so many easter eggs that I couldn’t catch them all.

But that is the thing of it. TOO MUCH.

This book has so many ideas. When looking at the over-arching plot structure it doesn’t have one. Zachary wanders from one thing to another. I actually got very lost about halfway through. It doesn’t SAVE THE CAT or HERO’S JOURNEY. It just meanders around until you also feel lost like Zachary in the doors of time. So many little details were put into that I don’t think all of the threads were found at the end, because I was still confused.

And none of the characters are there to save the lost story. Actually, my favorite character is Kat, and she is not in it as much as I wished. Everyone else kinda falls flat. Kat is the only one with character. A friend actually mentioned she wished Kat were the protagonist instead of Zachary, and you know what? That is a great point. I kinda wish that too.

And let me point out the villain…..

…right. There isn’t one. Allegra, the strange lady that runs the Collector’s Club is a strong contender for the villain, but she isn’t really villainous. She steals doorknobs so people can’t get into the secret library. She did cut off some guy’s hand. That is pretty creepy. But she disappears halfway through the book, so then I was confused by the story’s direction. If there is no opposing force, what drives the main character’s actions?

I also think the main story was poorly cast, if we are talking characters. Zachary is a Video Game major, which I found weird and unnecessary. And then there is Dorian, who’s name isn’t Dorian, but we don’t know him from any other name, is the creepy guy that is Zachary’s love interest. I don’t have a problem with the relationship being same-sex, I do have a problem with the age difference and how it is written. It wasn’t interesting. There was no dynamic. Many times I felt that this was written as a teen romance, but then remember that this guy Dorian is about 50. It’s written that he is a silver fox, but that just makes it gross for me. I can’t connect with the relationship at all.

But the story wasn’t really about the relationship, or if it was, I missed that part with all the other unnecessary details.

When I say it was poorly cast is that the most interesting character is not the main character, and I feel that is a problem. There needed to be more dynamics and more risks when setting up the protagonist. And maybe the relationship didn’t work for me because I couldn’t connect with it, but it didn’t feel authentic either. It was almost like she decided to change the gender of her character to see what the story looked like and didn’t change some of the language surrounding it. Putting Kat as the main character flips it in a positive, interesting way. Kat being a Video Game major makes sense because of her eccentric character. Oh…. as I said, poor casting.

My mind kept coming back to the Night Circus and how deep that relationship went and how I was so glued to it. But it was a relationship hooked me in dynamic ways. I kept trying to give this relationship between Zachary and Dorian a shot, but I several times thought they didn’t even like each other. Looking at it now that I’m out of the story and evaluating it, I think about Morgenstern’s audience. One of the things that made Night Circus magic was the ache we felt for these two people forbidden to love and fated to destroy each other. The love story was weaved into every fiber of that story. It wasn’t so here. It had nothing to do with the story. Funny though, my favorite short story that was told between the Zachary sections was the Ballad of Simon and Eleanor, which was a quick but lovely love story, that later became very important and I just wanted more of this story. The other parts in the book were now a distraction. I didn’t care about the main story. I wish she would have put more thought about dynamics of a strong relationship in the main story as she did with the others.

“It is easier to be in love in a room with closed doors. To have the whole world in one room. One person. The universe condensed and intensified and burning, bright and alive and electric.”

And last thing… too much sweet is just too much sometimes. Have any of you ever had a Hot Caramel Apple Cider from Starbucks? They are no kidding amazing. If it’s not on the menu, you can still order it. It’s seasonal, but also on their secret wink wink menu. It is very sweet, and the first sip takes you by surprise. And then you start to get used to it. And then… by the end of the cup you are so sick of it, you don’t even want the very last sip, you just throw the whole thing away.

That is this book.

The prose are marvelous. Every single sentence is well planned, thought out, and poetic in every alliterative. Near the end of it, I felt like my fingers were sticky with honey. Stop mentioning honey. I was saturated with the intertwining words that it’s just too much for the heart and the brain. I no longer could recognize what was special about it. It might be with the cascading plot that toppled around a sea filled with honey, but I really think it was the free reign of ideas that was just a few too many.

This review is hard to write, but it’s also beautiful to write. I loved this book, but I hated it. I loved the fairytale. I hated the story, but loved it. And I hated mostly that Morgenstern gets away with such structure problems that I would get murdered for in my reviews. All hidden in her prose. That’s so unfair.

“Not all stories speak to all listeners, but all listeners can find a story that does, somewhere, sometime. In one form or another.”

I will recommend people read this book. I wouldn’t want people to miss it. It is a good example to writers and readers of what you can do with words. And a good exercise in how important structure, character, and relationships are to a story.

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