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 Ten Thousand Doors of January”

The Ten Thousand Doors of January

By: Alix E. Harrow

Published: September 10, 2019

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Coming-of-Age

            I almost didn’t notice the Door at all. All Doors are like that, half-shadowed and sideways until someone looks at them in just the right way, (1, The Blue Door). 

            Portal fantasies are one of the many subgenres in fantasy fiction, going back to the emergence of the genre. Popular portal fantasies include: C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and—more recently—the Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire and Shades of Magic by V.E. Schwab. Academic scholar Farah Mendlesohn defines portal fantasy as, “a fantastic world entered through a portal,” (xix). Note how the definition does NOT state that it has to be “our” world. Alix E. Harrow, author of The Ten Thousand Doors of January and recent Hugo Award recipient for Best Short Story—“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies”—reminds readers that portal fantasies can lead from one world to our world (planet: Earth, galaxy: Milky Way).  

            January Scaller is our protagonist. She tells her story of growing up in Vermont at the start of the twentieth century. January is the ward of Mr. William Cornelius Locke, a billionaire and an archaeologist. Her mother is deceased and her father, Julian Scaller, is a scholar who is employed by Mr. Locke to search for and to collect artifacts for him. Throughout her childhood, she’s kept under Mr. Locke’s watchful eye with only her childhood friend, Samuel Zappia; her father’s appointed guardian for her, Jane Irimu; and, her dog, Sindbad. January doesn’t know much of what is happening around her, until the day before her 17th birthday when she finds a leather-bound book titled: The Ten Thousand Doors. That book introduces January (and readers) to Adelaide Lee Larson—a woman born during the Reconstruction Era—and, to Yule Ian Scholar—a man from the City of Nin in the year 6908, who is the author of the book January finds—and their encounters with Doors and each other. Both Adelaide and Yule Ian have different experiences surrounding Doors, and January—who shares the same curiosity as them—learns more about these other worlds through them. However, this book reveals the truth of her father’s “work” as well as Mr. Locke’s “intentions” for her. From there, January discovers and uses this information to break away from her guardians and to repair the damage that’s been stricken to her loved ones. January’s coming-of-age story stands out more than other ones I’ve read recently; and, I couldn’t stop learning along with her. 

            The plot in the novel surrounds January Scaller’s unique upbringing. Because her father travels around the world while working for Mr. Locke, January was always left behind. And yet, January had tutors and would travel to places around the world with Mr. Locke; not to mention, Mr. Locke disapproved of January’s companions. It’s as if Mr. Locke is afraid to have January out of his sight. Throughout her childhood, January is Mr. Locke’s “good girl,” but longs for her father’s affections. This comes to an end when 3 events happen around and on January’s 17th birthday: her father disappears, she finds The Ten Thousand Doors, and she learns of Mr. Locke’s plans for her life. From there, January must find a way to escape her guardians and discover the truth surrounding Doors and her father’s connection to them. There are 2 subplots in this novel. First, is the story of Adelaide and Yule Ian and their discoveries about Doors and other worlds. Second, is the way January, Samuel, and Jane survive in a society that is dominated by wealthy, Caucasian males who do all they can to control other people. The subplots are intertwined with the plot, and everything comes together, slowly; yet, the pace of the development fits the story the author is telling. 

            The narrative in The Ten Thousand Doors of January consist of 3 different points-of-view: January Scaller, Adelaide Lee Larson, and Yule Ian Scholar. The entire novel—except for the Epilogue—is told in flashback. January’s narrative is told in the past tense in stream-of-consciousness, Adelaide’s narrative is written as a biography, and Yule Ian’s narrative is written as a journal. The sequence of these narratives takes some getting used to but, readers will be able to follow along after the first few chapters. Readers are led to believe that all of the narrators are reliable because the story is told from their P.O.V.s. 

            The way Alix E. Harrow tells her story is a combination of “tradition” with allusion alongside history. In the “tradition” of portal fantasy, “‘the journey’ serves to divorce the protagonists from the world,” (Mendlesohn 7). In other words, the protagonist must separate themselves from their “home” world and travel to another world. In this novel, several worlds are mentioned and traveled to, but there is a strong hint (the title) that there are a lot more. In terms of allusion, the names January and Sindbad, Locke and Scholar are not given by accident. These names serve as epithets to the story being told. The mood is oppression and the tone is escapism. In the midst of the novel is the setting. January turns 17 in 1911. During this time, racism, sexism, and imperialism were practiced throughout the world. January, Julian, Samuel, and Jane are victims of these societal practices. The author uses our history to explain why some individuals would desire either to leave, or to travel to our world. If someone who was suffering under the societal hierarchy was given a chance to live elsewhere, then who is to say that they shouldn’t take the opportunity? The author wants readers to question the existence of other worlds. 

            This novel will appeal to fans of fantasy, especially portal fantasies. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a reminder that adults can travel to other worlds as well as children. This is a standalone novel, so there is a chance that it could fall behind in the popularity of similar books that are in a series. Yet, because this novel explains the concept of other worlds in existence (not just one), I believe this novel will be read and enjoyed by many readers. Plus, the author just won a Hugo, so I doubt this book will ever fade from popularity. 

            The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a beautiful debut novel about other worlds, love, and sacrifice. It does take a while for the story to pick up, but once it does, readers will learn about other and new worlds that never crossed their minds. The protagonist grows from a suppressed and isolated individual to a world trotter makes for a believable, yet traumatic, bildungsroman story. Alix E. Harrow is an author with more worlds to present to readers, and I can’t wait to learn about all ten thousand of them!

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

This is because Alix E. Harrow said I had “neat” handwriting.

                                                            List of Works Cited

Mendlesohn, Farah. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Middletown, CT, Wesleyan University Press, 2008.