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: “Realm of Ash”

The Books of Ambha: #2: Realm of Ash

By: Tasha Suri

Published: November 12, 2019

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

NOTE: Some minor spoilers from Empire of Sand. You have been warned. 

            “My blood—my Amrithi blood in this loyal Ambhan body—is part of the curse. But it’s also part of the cure. I just don’t know how. But the Emperor’s family, your mistress…they might. Perhaps they’ll find answers in my blood that I can’t. You should send me to them, if they’ll have me,” (Chapter Five). 

            In 2018, a debut fantasy novel based on Indian mysticism was released to praise by readers and critics alike; and, Empire of Sand won the 2019 British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer and the 2019 Brave New Words Award. In 2019, the follow-up, Realm of Ash, picks up ten years after the events in the first book and answers all of the questions in it. It was a long year to wait to read this book by Tasha Suri, and it was worth it. 

            Arwa, Mehr’s younger sister who was spirited away to safety by their stepmother, Maryam, and their father, is all grown-up (she’s 21) and recently widowed from a massacre at Darez Fort. Instead of returning to Hara to live with her parents, Arwa decides to live in a hermitage of widows (for nobility). At the beginning of the novel, Arwa is plagued by guilt for surviving the massacre, for failing in her duties as a wife (to her stepmother’s grief), and for revealing her heritage of being an Amrithi. Arwa believes Mehr died with the Maha, and her parents did everything they could to make sure Arwa didn’t repeat the same mistakes her sister made. Since Arwa looks more Ambhan (lighter skin tone) than Mehr (darker skin tone), she was taught to blend into Ambhan society and view her Amrithi heritage as a curse. However, the last lesson Mehr taught Arwa about their blood is the reason Arwa survived the massacre, and she doesn’t know how to feel about it. After arriving at the hermitage, Arwa meets Gulshera, another widow with connections to the royal family. Arwa asks Gulshera for the chance to serve the royal family and to save the Empire from ruin, an unfortunate effect of the Maha’s death. At the palace, Arwa meets Jihan, the princess, who tells her her assignment, to assist the Emperor’s blessed (bastard) son, Zahir—Jihan’s brother, with his work in occult arts to seek the Maha’s knowledge. Knowledge that could revive the Empire. Readers will see the resemblance Arwa has to Mehr in how the two sisters were sheltered from the truth of their heritage and the Emperor’s power. The more Arwa learns the more she grows into the person she had to suppress as per her stepmother and (Ambhan) gender role expectations. Arwa develops as both a characters and an individual as she makes her way through the complexities of her new status—widow and tool of the Empire—in a society which believes the past has the answers. 

            The plot of Realm of Ash is the fallout based on the ending of Empire of Sand. The Ambhan Empire has fallen on hard times since the Maha’s death. In addition, Arwa’s father was stripped of his governorship due to his behavior towards the Emperor regarding Mehr. For ten years, Arwa was raised with the goal of restoring her family to their previous status while the Empire moved into decline after 400 years of affluence. Arwa’s widowhood and revealed heritage is the chance for Arwa to restore both her family’s glory and the Empire’s prosperity. However, as Arwa and Zahir study more about the Empire’s past with the Amrithi and learn about the motivations the royal family hope to achieve with this knowledge, the two “illegitimate heretics” must determine other factors for saving the Empire. There are two subplots in this novel. The first is the truth which is revealed about the Amrithi and their ties to the Emperor’s and the Maha’s rule. The second is the tension amongst the royal siblings as the Emperor is on his deathbed and must name his successor. Both subplots are related because, as Arwa learns, the Amrithi aren’t cursed, but they were coveted for their abilities and their magic, which were used and abused by the Maha and the royal family for their benefit. These revelations comes as a shock to Arwa because it means that the foundations of the Ambhan Empire are built on lies and corruption, and the royal family made sure that those lies became beliefs within the Empire. Of course, the royal family would prefer if Arwa and Zahir would stay focused on gaining the Maha’s knowledge so that everything can go back to the way things were before his death. It’s too bad Arwa has her sister’s temperament and stubbornness for doing the “right” thing. These subplots enrich the plot in that Arwa’s life gets sidetracked again and she has to decide what to do with the truth she’s learned regarding the Empire and her family. Arwa realizes that the Empire, the Emperor and the Maha are at fault, not her sister and not the Amrithi. 

            The narrative is told from Arwa’s point-of-view as she becomes the hope for reviving the Empire. In Empire of Sand, readers learned about the Amrithi and the Maha from Mehr’s P.O.V.; in Realm of Ash, readers learn about the Ambhan and the Emperor from Arwa’s P.O.V. This provides readers with the two halves of the world-building and an understanding of all of the events across both books. In the case of Realm of Ash, Arwa experiences moments of the past in flashbacks as part of the occult rituals she performs with Zahir. In those memories, Arwa witnesses the horrific truth of her Amrithi heritage, but it leads to her accepting and marveling at it, eventually. The narrative presents Arwa’s change in demeanor and personality as she learns to heal from her traumatic experience and the shame she believed she should have for her Amrithi heritage. All of these elements of the narrative make Arwa a reliable narrator whom can be followed by all readers. 

            Tasha Suri continues to use the same style she used in Empire of Sand in Realm of Ash. She presents the Ambhan Empire as a beautiful place with denizens of various social classes and faiths. Only this time, the author puts more emphasis on the consequences of colonialism, parental influences, magic, and societal expectations and practices. The mood is hardship of a declining society and a loss of purpose in life. The tone is how individuals and society can continue to thrive once they find a new purpose and a new way to live, if given the chance. If Empire of Sand focuses on themes of strength and survival, then the themes in Realm of Ash are based on enduring and resilience!

            The appeal of Realm of Ash surpasses its predecessor, thus making the series, and the author, worthy of all of the praise given to it. Fans of fantasy, and the first book, will want to read this book; and, fans of historical fiction might enjoy this book as well. Both Books of Ambha can be read in either order—amidst minor spoilers—and readers will get the complete experience of the world the author created. The same warnings of violence and abuse from the first book are relevant in this one, but given the historical and societal context of the story, those aspects do not affect the way readers will enjoy the story.

            Realm of Ash is an amazing follow-up to Empire of Sand and answers all the questions readers had from the previous book. It is not unusual for the next book in a series to be better than the first, but Realm of Ash is a stronger story dealing with issues of lost, family, and magic. It also adds to the world-building that was half-finished in the first book, providing a complete and beautiful world that is worth saving. This book was in my top five of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2019, and I’m looking forward to reading more books by Tasha Suri.

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!