Why You Need to Read: “The Starless Sea”

The Starless Sea

By: Erin Morgenstern

Published: November 5, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Urban Fantasy/Magic Realism

            Only the singular section of “Sweet Sorrows” is about him, though pages are missing, upon close inspection there are numerous vacancies along the spine. The text comes back to the pirate and the girl again but the rest is disjointed, it feels incomplete. Much of it resolves around an underground library. No, not a library, a book-centric fantasia…(Book I: Sweet Sorrows).

            I have a confession to make: I haven’t read The Night Circus, yet. Yes, it’s shocking that I’m reviewing The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern before reading her impressive debut novel. All I will say is this, I was more curious about the author’s follow-up novel than her debut novel and I made the effort to read the recent book before the previous one. I didn’t want to write a review in which I make the same argument that has been done to both Harper Lee and Jeff Eugenides. So, without further comparison or explanation, here is my review of The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern’s homage to New York City and libraries around the world.  

            There are three protagonists in this novel. The first is Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a graduate student who is studying Emerging Media Studies at a university in Vermont. He is spending his semester break reading his favorite books alongside classic books. During another trip to the university library, he comes across a book titled, Sweet Sorrows, which has no clear hint as to what the story is about. After reading a section which refers to a moment in Zachary’s life with the description: “The boy is the son of the fortune-teller,” the book goes missing from his possession. Zachary decides to investigate the book’s origins, the library it originally came from, and the opportunity he missed all those years ago. The second protagonist is Dorian, a member of one of the organizations who knows about Zachary, the book—Sweet Sorrows, and the Starless Sea. One thing which is a mystery (at first) is for whom is Dorian working for, what his goals are, and why he keeps switching allegiances. Last, is Mirabel, a resident of one of the Harbors of the Starless Sea, who assists Zachary on his “quest” to rescue Dorian and to save the Starless Sea from destruction. Other characters who are relevant to the story are: the Keeper—the keeper of the Harbor, Kat—Zachary’s classmate from the university, Allegra—a woman who wishes to seek the destruction of the Starless Sea, and Madam Love Rawlins—Zachary’s mother, who is a fortune teller. All of these characters assist with the development of the protagonists through their knowledge of the Starless Sea, and the knowledge of the protagonists’ roles in saving the library. Their love or hate of each other will determine how they will get through the dilemma they’re in together. 

            The narrative switches between the characters, the settings (especially time) and the sequence. It might start off as confusing, but the breaks and the change in narrative allows the reader to know what each character is experiencing in relation to the plot. The narrative has six sequences that follow the characters on their journey as they learn about the Starless Sea, their connection to it, and the ongoings of the world beyond the Harbors and the Starless Sea (our world). These parts are the titles of the books written about and read by all of the characters. Due to this sort of narration, all of the POVs are told in 3rd person omniscient with each character being a reliable narrator. This is because their streams-of-consciousness and points-of-view allow readers to understand the reasons for their actions within the story. And, while the jump in sequence between the past and the present start off confusing, the readers will get used to this narration and will find it easy to follow. 

            The style Erin Morgernstern uses in The Starless Sea is specialized, but not typical. The idea of there being a story (or several stories) within a story is nothing new; and, it shouldn’t be new to fantasy readers. The concept of different forms of literature (i.e. prose and excerpts) written within one book is not new. Yet, the way the author writes her story using those practices are what makes her story so captivating to read. Add to this the description of New York City and its notable landmarks, and allusions to various books and pop culture references presents The Starless Sea as a creative tribute to Manhattan and to nerds everywhere! And, as a former grad student who studied emerging media studies, all of the references to “the Hero’s Quest” and video games was a nice touch to an inner group of the nerd community (Thank You)! The mood in this story is one of urgency. The urgency of meeting someone, the urgency of saving something, and the urgency of value are essential to the story. The tone is the meaning of that urgency for a group of individuals who are connected to each other, but have different ways of dealing and handling with an urgency. Not everyone is going to react the same way to an urgency, and that is essential to know for this book.

            The Starless Sea was one of the most anticipated novels of 2019, and it was on my list of best speculative fiction books of 2019. While it received praise from NPR, Amazon, and The New York Times, there have been some mixed reviews from readers. Without getting too deep into those criticisms, I knew that this book would be different from The Night Circus, and the style and the format of the book did not “interrupt” my reading of this book. Readers who’ve read books similar to The Sisters of the Winter Wood will not be surprised by the changing sequence of narration. Readers who’ve read books similar to Gods of Jade and Shadow should be familiar with the actual places used as setting—in which you can follow along with a map. And, readers who’ve enjoyed The Ten Thousand Doors of January—or, any portal fantasy story—should know the idea of Doors and other worlds. The Starless Sea stands apart from the books mentioned because of the story the author wrote for her readers. It seems to me that many readers were so caught up with comparing this book to the author’s previous one that they failed to recognize and to enjoy the story they were reading. The Starless Sea is about the love for people who share one’s interests and the love shared amongst a group of individuals for a landmark; it is a story about love and what someone will do for it.  

            The Starless Sea is the long-awaited follow-up book by Erin Morgenstern. The story consists of well-developed characters, elements of mystery and love all within a magical library that could exist below Manhattan’s subway system. This is a beautiful story meant for fans of portal fantasies and urban fantasies. Whether or not you’ve read The Night Circus should not dictate on reading The Starless Sea, you’re the one missing out on a great story.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5).

Why You Need to Read: “The Ruin of Kings”

A Chorus of Dragons #1: The Ruin of Kings

By: Jenn Lyons                                                    Audiobook: 27 hours 22 minutes

Published: February 5, 2019                          Narrated by: Feodor Chin, Vikas 

Genre: Fantasy                                                               Adam, Soneela Nankani

            There’s a prophecy. Actually no, it’s more like a thousand prophecies. It’s the collected rantings of a thousand people…the prophecies refer to an end time, a great cataclysm, when a single man of vast evil will rise up. The “Hellwarrior” will conquer the Manol, strip vane of our immortality, kill the Emperor, destroy the Empire of Quur, and free the demons. In his right hand he will hold Urthaenriel, and with his left, he will crush the world and remake it as he desires, (29: Teraeth’s Return, Kihrin’s story). 

            There are times when books are released to critical acclaim and maintain buzzworthy feedback, which piques a reader’s curiosity. While I was unsure whether or not the debut novel, The Ruin of Kings—the first book in A Chorus of Dragons trilogy, would meet my expectations, I was curious about the hype surrounding this book. I guess “the powers that be” wanted me to read Jenn Lyon’s book because I received the hardcopy as a prize in a drawing, the eBook for free, and the audiobook through my subscription. So, I read this book through audiobook and immediately, I understood what all of the attention was about. 

            The protagonist is Kihrin, the son of a minstrel who spends more time getting into mischief for his thievery and fighting than practicing his harp. After one of his heists, it looks as if Kihrin is about to profit from his work, when a demon manifests in the city and chases him through the streets of Quur. After being saved by the city watch, it is revealed to him—because of his physical attributes—that he is the lost heir of House D’Mon, one of the 12 Royal Houses of the Quur Empire. Claimed against his will into a life he doesn’t want, Kihrin learns quickly that being a noble is not as worthwhile as the tales and other people make it out to be. At the same time, Kihrin suspects that a few members of his new family might be up to no good. However, before he can escape, Kihrin is kidnapped and sold to the Black Brotherhood as a slave. Yet, this organization isn’t interested in keeping him as a slave, but wants to train him to be an assassin in order to fulfill his destiny in the war to come. Kihrin’s story is a twisted bildungsroman about a 15-year-old boy who is forced to grow up under arduous conditions in a hostile environment with people who refuse to reveal his identity to him. Kihrin develops into an adult whose complexity leaves him with more questions than answers; but, the other characters he meets and interacts with along the way give him hints to his (true) identity.

            The plot in this novel has two parts. The first is Kihrin’s life from his latest thief to his kidnapping, and in between is the time he spent living as a member of a Royal House and what transpired there. The second part is Kihrin’s capture, auction and imprisonment with the Black Brotherhood and everything that happened to him with them. Both plots reveal the two identities which were kept from Kihrin in order to keep him safe. Unfortunately, recent events brought an end to Kihrin’s carefree life. This is because the subplot—events which will lead up to the end-of-the-world—has begun and Kihrin is one of the many who can put an end to this upcoming and inevitable event. However, no one knows which part Kihrin is supposed to play within the prophecy. The subplot is crucial to the two parts of the plot because it is the reason why everything happens to Kihrin and it becomes the focal point of the series. 

            The narrative is what garners the most attention. The novel has two parts, which presents various moments of the occurrences throughout the Empire of Quur. Part I is told in the past tense, but with two different narrators reciting two different timelines. Kihrin begins his narration from when he was sold to the Black Brotherhood and all of the events, which happened right up to his imprisonment in jail. The second narrator—and fellow jailer—is Talon, a woman with shapeshifting abilities, among other powers, who knows A LOT about Kihrin from the jewels he stole that night, to his “return” to the D’Mon family, to his kidnapping. Talon, tells Kihrin’s story to him from her point-of-view (3rd person) and Kihrin tells his story from his point-of-view (1st person). Both of these narratives are told in flashback and they introduce the readers—and the chronicler who is the intended audience of this story (read the footnotes!)—to all of the characters Kihrin interacted with: Ola, Galen, Tyentso, and several more characters who navigate Kihrin’s life and the decisions he makes throughout the narrative. At the same time, the world-building occurs from these narrations as the audience learns about the world the author created, its history and society—including immortals, magic and jewels—how it relates to Kihrin’s predicament and how it all relates to the end-of-the-world. The world-building will keep the interest of the reader, with help from the Appendums. In Part I, Talon forces Kihrin to tell the truth and everything that happened to him up to his imprisonment, and Talon does the same for Kihrin, which angers him to no end. Due to this “creative method” of blackmailing, both Kihrin and Talon are reliable narrators through their recounting of events. Part II focuses on the first wave of cataclysmic events, which set off the prophecies about the end-of-the-world. It is here when the narration moves to present tense and the point-of-view switches between the characters who’ve become “players” in this part of the apocalypse, including Kihrin, a few members of the Black Brotherhood, and Kihrin’s family. Part II is told in 3rd person omniscient, which provides all of the action everywhere from all of the characters P.O.V.s. Here, the narration is reliable, too. The readers receive a full account of everything that led up to the end, and the stream-of-consciousness the author provides for all of her characters enriches the story so that it can be followed by the readers.

            The style Jenn Lyons uses for The Ruin of Kings is the concept of oral tradition. Instead of one character providing an oral account of his story, the author inserted a second storyteller so that no detail would be omitted by the first one. Oral tradition typically results in changes to a narrative either through voluntary omission, or lack of knowledge of any kind by the storyteller (in this case, not being able to be two places at once). Here, the author found a way for the entire narration to be told orally. This is similar to how epic stories such as The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Epic of Gilgameshwere passed down before being written down by scribes and chroniclers, and that is the style presented to the readers: two oral storytellers and one chronicler. The mood in The Ruin of Kings is imprisonment whether or not it comes from an individual’s identity, social status, or role in a prophecy, all of these elements put a restriction to one’s freedom, especially choice. The tone is how those individuals deal with their imprisonment and what choices (if few) they make when given the opportunity to make them; and, what happens when those individuals are no longer imprisoned and what that means for everyone else. Once again, both the maps and the appendums are a huge help to reading this book.  

            The appeal for The Ruin of Kings have been positive. Fans of A Song of Ice and Fire series and the Book of the Ancestor trilogy will enjoy this book the most. This is because both the character motivation and the idea of how prophecy is not straightforward are themes that are reflected in this novel. Jenn Lyons lets her protagonist learn the hard way that the tropes of long-lost heirs and prophetic heroes are nothing but embellishments to make such stories sound more appealing to everyone else. The one experiencing it has it the worse and gets to decide how the story will be told to everyone else; and, Kihrin almost makes the same mistake about his story, almost. This book was one of my selections for best speculative fiction books of 2019. The second book in this trilogy, The Name of All Things, was released in October 2019 with readers claiming it was better than the first book. And, the final book in the A Chorus of Dragons trilogy, The Memory of Souls, will be released in August 2020. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of his trilogy!

            The audiobook experience was different this time because there were three narrators instead of the usual one. Yet, having three different voices for the three different characters who are telling the story—Kihrin, Talon and the chronicler—clue the listeners in as to who is telling the story at that moment. And, it keeps the listener(s) from tuning out of the story. Feodor Chin, Vikas Adam and Soneela Nankani voice the characters in a way that one can picture the voice matching those characters perfectly; they speak the way I imagine those characters sounding if they were real people. 

            The Ruin of Kings is an ambitious start to a new epic fantasy series, which present the harsh realities surrounding royalty, magic and prophecies. Within these twisted tropes is a story about a young man who had all of his choices taken away from him, yet he strives to protect everything he cares about, even if destiny says otherwise. Jenn Lyon’s story contains complex characters and a world whose history and culture is as complex yet constant as ours. This novel is like the story it tells, simple at first, and then drops you into the story “in media res.”

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5).