In 2012, I picked up a copy of “The Night Circus”, a fantasy novel written by a fellow Massachusetts resident, Erin Morgenstern, who is about my age (she’s 364 days my elder). Always looking to support new talent, especially from my home state and generation, I gave it a shot. This was a book that hit me at the absolute perfect time. In 2012 I was primed and ready for a romantic fantasy novel set in a magical “Circus of Dreams” in Victorian London. The chapters were quick, well written, and engaging. While not an exact comparison, the television show “Carnivale” was something that really spoke to me when it came out. There was just something about that old time circus setting, from a time in our youths when magic could be real, that made an impact. Bradbury’s “Something wicked this way comes” also taps into this, with albeit a more sinister bent. Night Circus tapped into that same well of magic for me. Years later, the novel stuck with me, often recommended to friends, especially those that like Rowling, Gaiman, and similar fare.
I followed Morgenstern on and off over the next few years, awaiting her second novel. About 9 months ago, while I was languishing in the hospital, I read that this long awaited book would be coming out in the Fall. I pre-ordered immediately. On that beautiful day in November, it arrived at my doorstep. I placed it on my nightstand… and there it sat. I had a couple of other books to knock down, so I decided to put off Starless Sea until those were finished. Well, I did so and still did not pick it up. I then realized that I was in some sort of self imposed limbo. I’d been waiting so long to read her follow up that I was somewhat hesitant to dive in! I might not get another of her novels for 7 years! I soon realized that I am stupid, and began the journey.
Right off the bat, this one is far more ambitious than Night Circus. It is also very difficult to explain, but I will do my best. Somewhere beneath the Earth is a magical realm, essentially a giant library of sorts. Contained here are, as far as I know, all the stories. All of them. They exist in all sorts of form (even consumables!). For untold years, people have found their way here by way of magic doorways strewn across the world. Some just visit to read/write. Others are divided into castes and take on permanent positions there. We arrive in this world at a point where it is basically on life support. A faction is going around the world and destroying all of the doorways. The world has no knowledge of the place and few ways to access it.
Our central character is Zachary. He is a graduate student and book lover. He comes across a strange old book in the library, which directly relates to this book’s structure. We hop back and forth between the main story (Zachary) and chapters from this other books that Zachery reads. The first book he is reading, Sweet Sorrows, is a nested storybook of fantastical adventures of Pirates, Myths, all sorts of great stuff. Zachary is shocked when he reaches a chapter about a young boy finding one of the aforementioned magical doors and not going through it. What shocks him is that the boy in HIM, decades ago. This is an event from his past. The book, being written long before he was born, cannot possibly exist. This leads him on an adventure into the subterranean world where he seeks to understand the world, his place in it, and the Starless Sea which sits beneath it.
Morgenstern shot for the moon with this book. I am not sure if she was ultimately successful in weaving the various nested chapters into a cohesive entity, but she came damn close. This book is a love letter to readers, and lovers of story. Like Night Circus, this one stays with me. As the book ends I am BEGGING for it to continue. There is something in this book, probably the whole “magic books/puzzle” thing, that reminds me of Myst, the 1990’s video game series. That game drew me in similarly when I was a teenager. I loved diving into this strange world and unlocking it’s secrets. This book has somehow recaptured that sense of wonder and mystery. I was truly sad when the ending arrived. I wanted the fables to carry on forever. My particular favorite is the chapter set in the old inn, the sun/moon story, in case you want to know.
Read this. Savor it. Enjoy it to your fullest ability. She might keep us waiting a long time for her third novel, but at least we know it will be worth the wait.