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: “Velocity Weapon”

The Protectorate: Book 1: Velocity Weapon                          

By: Megan E. O’Keefe                                        Audiobook: 18 hours 22 minutes

Published: June 11, 2019                                  Narrated by: Joe Jameson

Genre: Science Fiction/Space Opera

I am called “The Light of Berossus,” the voice said, (Chapter 1, The Aftermath of the Battle of Dralee). 

For every individual in a fandom, there is the moment, in which they were hooked, thus beginning their membership. For me and science fiction, it was my parents’ love for the two Star Trek shows which aired during the 1990s: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine—yes, Star Wars was part of my introduction to the genre, too. From there, I started reading science fiction novels, until I stopped. Don’t get me wrong, I was still a fan of the genre, but I didn’t read as many books as I wanted to (there were plenty of movies, TV shows and video games, but that’s for another time). Sometime later I got back into the science fiction by reading the recent releases by different authors which had my exploring the genre again. Yet, it was Velocity Weapon by Megan E. O’Keefe which kept my interest to the point where I bought the audiobook so that I could know what happened after my “stop point” in reading the print book. This space opera reintroduced me to the science fiction genre and reminded me why I fell in love with it in the first place!

There are 3 protagonists in this novel, who narrate the events over the course of several years from 3 different settings. First, there is Sanda Greeve. She is a sergeant for the Ada Prime System, and the last thing she remembers is being shot by the Icarions before her evac pod allowed her to escape, onto an enemy ship—an A.I. Smartship. When she wakes up she learns is the only living being on the ship—The Light of Berossus, or Bero—and, when she asks how and why this is possible, she learns that it’s been 230 years since her ship was shot down. Sanda processes this shocking bit of news as she figures out a way to survive in space with a smartship for company. Next, there is Biran Greeve, Sanda’s younger brother, who has just graduated from the academy at the top of his class. This means that Biran will become a Keeper—a member of the Protectorate who leads Ada Prime and is one of the “keepers” of secrets and knowledge of the Star Systems, which are embedded in a chip that gets implanted inside their skull. However, as Biran is giving his speech, the Battle of Dralee—the same battle his older sister ends up fighting in—breaks out. Biran must behave as a Keeper before his indoctrination and before he can wonder whether or not his sister survived the battle. Last, there is Jules, a thief. During the latest heist with her crew, Jules and the others stumble upon two things: a dead body and a room filled with test tubes. There are other characters who interact with these protagonists throughout the story: Lolla and Harlan, Tomas Cepko, Anaia, and Callie Mera; and, they all help the protagonists develop into the people they need to be given their circumstances. Then, there is Bero, who is more than a smartship. It is aware of what’s going on more than its letting on to everyone else. 

The plot of this novel is an interesting one. The Battle of Dralee in the Prime Standard Year 3541 starts the story and the plot emerges from there, from the Greeve siblings. Biran must step up into his role as Keeper, while he breaks protocol in order to search for his missing sister. Sanda is drifting towards another Star System injured and alone on a damaged smartship. She must rely on her training and instincts, and on Bero to survive her situation. There are two subplots, which are related to the plot. The first one is the secret, in which Jules and her crew stumble across and what it could mean for them, for Icarion and for Ada Prime. The second one focuses on Bero and his motivations. Why is an enemy smartship drifting in the middle of Space? And, why did he rescue Sergeant Sanda Greeve? The plot and the subplots develop alongside the characters and the world-building at an appropriate rate, which make it impossible for the readers to lose track of everything that is going on in the story. 

The narrative jumps across 3 different years from 3 different locations from the points-of-view of several characters. All of the narratives are told in first person from the protagonists and the other characters perspectives. Readers must pay attention to the sequence of the narrative because while the narrative is the present for one character, it may be occurring in the past or the future for another character. The sequence of the narrative starts off with puzzlement for both the readers and the characters, but the events within the sequence keep the narrative in one constant motion where it can be followed by the readers and the audience. The characters’ streams-of-consciousness allow readers to know the thoughts of the characters and the reasons they make the decisions and perform the actions they do. There are moments of flashbacks within the narrative, and they provide clues of the bigger story that is being told. 

The style Megan E. O’Keefe uses in Velocity Weapon consists of the jargon of science fiction, the colloquialism of the armed forces, and the terminology for the world of space she cultivated for this series. The idea that two-star systems have been at war with each other for hundreds, or thousands, of years, with Earth as the potential beacon for the establishments for these star systems is an interesting factor to consider for the sort of story the author is presenting to her readers. The author is not presenting a science fiction story about two warring nations, she is writing a space opera—”a space story involving conflict between opponents possessing powerful technologies and abilities on a very large scale”—and about the consequences of hidden technology, which is the tone of this novel. The mood is hostility, including what it entails and how it is dealt with. While it is not that different from other space operas, it’s the way the author writes it that makes it very engaging.

The appeal for Velocity Weapon has been positive for sci-fi fans—which is good—but, minimal for the rest of the speculative fiction community. And, what I mean by that is that it is a great story that seems to be limited to one part of the literary fandom. There is enough of the same themes and ideas found in other works of science fiction and in fantasy fiction, yet it seems that more people would read this book and others like it if given the chance to learn about this story. There is a reason why this book was one of My Selections for Best Speculative Fiction Books of 2019. When I wasn’t able to continue reading this story, I finished it by listening to the audiobook. Joe Jameson’s performance of the characters make them easy for listeners to make out which character is speaking and narrating the story; and, his narration and voice is appropriate for the story that is being read by the listeners. The next book in The Protectorate series, Chaos Vector, will be released in July 2020. Fans of the first book are waiting eagerly to learn what happens next.

Velocity Weapon is an entertaining space opera about family, government conspiracies, A.I. ships, and an ongoing military campaign between nations that will keep readers’ interests from beginning to end. Megan E. O’Keefe demonstrates her abilities for writing engaging stories across the spectrum of speculative fiction. Sci-fi fans should consider adding it to theirs. This book is a reminder that space is a fascinating frontier!

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: “The Kingdom of Copper”

The Daevabad Trilogy #2: The Kingdom of Copper

By: S.A. Chakraborty

Published: February 21, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction

            She shook her head. “Whatever the consequences, Dara acted to protect my daughter from a fate I fought for decades. I cannot fault him for that. And if you think Ghassan wasn’t looking for a reason to crack down on the Daevas the instant a Nahid and Afshin strolled through the gates of Daevabad, you clearly do not know him at all.” She gave them another sharp look. “Tearing each other apart is not why we are here,” (4, Dara). 

            As I mentioned in my review of The City of Brass, the first book in The Daevabad Trilogy, this is a series in which the characters and the world are influenced by Middle Eastern history, culture and folklore. Yet, the story of political power, corruption and struggle is a universal theme in stories and an issue within our world. The Kingdom of Copper expands both the influences and the themes in the magical world S.A. Chakraborty presents to us.

            The story takes place 5 years after Dara’s—short for Darayavahoush e-Afshin—death and resurrection, Nahri’s forced marriage to Prince Muntadhir, and Prince Alizayd’s—Muntadhir’s younger brother—exile to Am Gezira for plotting against his father, King Ghassan al Qahtani. Dara has been resurrected by Manizheh, Nahri’s mother—who faked her death in order to protect herself and her family—so that he can assist her in leading a rebellion against King Ghassan for his treachery and in order to reclaim the throne that was held by the Nahids—the ancestors and tribe of Nahri and Manizheh. Nahri is now wife to Muntadhir, the king’s son and heir, is the new Banu Nahid, or royal healer, and is trapped in the gilded cage of the palace with no one she can trust. She uses her healing gifts and her desire to be a physician in order to cope with her current scenario and unwanted status. Prince Ali has settled in a small community in an oasis in Am Gezira away from his father’s assassins and members of his mother’s family (who want him on the throne). During his exile he learns how to control the abilities gifted to him by the marid, water spirits, on the night he slew Dara. All three protagonists are in scenarios based on the poor choices they made 5 years ago. They all have to live with the consequences of their actions and find other methods to achieve their original goals. Dara, Nahri and Ali develop further into maturity and they must find a way to maneuver through the unrest between ruling classes and amongst the six tribes of the djinn. The complexity of their situations mirror the complexity of their characteristics. 

            The plot continues from where The City of Brass left off. King Ghassan continues to subdue his subjects—mostly the shafit (those of mixed human and djinn heritage)—to harsh treatment and brutal punishments for minor offenses. Ghassan believes with Ali exiled for his betrayal, the death of the last of the Afshins (a.k.a. Dara), and his dominance over Nahri and the supporters of the Nahids he’ll remain in control. However, the king’s enemies have learned how to work underground and soon of the king’s subjects will revolt against the descendants of the rebel who overthrew the Nahids from power. This plot was the subplot in the first book, and it proves how relevant it is to this story’s narrative. There are two main subplots. The first regards Dara and his failure to protect Nahri is the latest of his long list of failures. Due to his imprisonment before meeting Nahri, Dara hasn’t had time to deal with the consequences of his actions that led to the death of his family. Not to mention, Dara’s memories are becoming clearer and he’s starting to remember the events that led to his actions from centuries ago, and those memories are causing him to question whether or not his alliance with Manizheh will lead to similar consequences. The second subplot focuses on the concept of identity and what it means for both Nahri and Ali. Nahri knows she is descended from the Nahids, but she’s not sure what that means. She doesn’t trust anyone in Daevabad, so promises of better things to come by the priests and the other healers means nothing to her. At the same time, Nahri stumbles over information as to how and what her ancestors were really like during their reign in Daevabad and what the Daeva priests expect from her. Meanwhile, Ali learns that he has more abilities than the ones “gifted” to him by the marids. Once again, Ali must find a way to keep his family safe while protecting the denizens of Daevabad from his father’s tyranny. These subplots move along with the plot at an appropriate rate providing development of the plot and the characters, and a way to continue the world-building left off in the first book. 

            The narrative continues from the points-of-view of Dara, Nahri and Ali. Once again, the P.O.V.s are 3rd person limited narrative; meaning they know only what is happening around them at that moment, which means the narrative is told in real time. Readers are aware of each protagonist’s thoughts thanks to their stream-of-consciousness, and because there are moments when one protagonist knows more than the other two at random intervals. All three protagonists are reliable narrators and they provide readers with everything that is going on with all of the characters—including moments of foreshadowing—which, can be followed easily due to the narrative’s sequence.

            The style S.A. Chakraborty uses continues from The City of Brass to The Kingdom of Copper. The history and the folklore of the Middle East—during the Ottoman Rule—continues to influence the story, and the themes of tyrannical rule and rebellion and its endless cycle within the story. The mood in this book is one of tension brought on by corruption and mistreatment of people and the fighting amongst the tribes and the growth of that tension. The tone in this story is how someone should react when tensions are to the point where unrest is coming and how someone should prepare themselves for it regardless of how others want them to act. Trusting one’s instincts is the only way someone can hope to survive when unrest is inevitable. 

            The appeal towards The Kingdom of Copper buildup from the first book. Readers and critics alike praised the author for continuing her fantasy story using her method of storytelling, which led to compliments about the story’s structure by a few readers. Now that the stakes have been raised, fans can only hope for more from S.A. Chakraborty. The critical acclaim will keep the book in popularity and in the fantasy canon. And, fans will be eager to read the story’s conclusion in The Empire of Gold when it is released. 

             The Kingdom of Copper is a strong sequel in The Daevabad Trilogy. The pacing of the world-building and the conflicts go at a more appropriate rate this time, and the input of a realm’s forgotten history makes the story more realistic. The complexity of the characters make them all the more tragic, yet lovable. This novel makes the upcoming conclusion to this trilogy to be very promising. 

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

Why You Need to Read: “Witchmark”

The Kingston Cycle: Book One: Witchmark

By: C.L. Polk

Published: June 19, 2018

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, LGBTQ, Mystery, Gaslamp, Military Fantasy

            “She gave no outward sign of her effort, but her Secondary’s knees sagged as she took as much of his strength as she pleased. I shuddered. That would have been me, if I hadn’t escaped. Nothing but a Storm-Singer’s minion, my own gifts dismissed as useless,” (Chapter Two).

            2018 was an immense year for the speculative fiction community. Several novels novellas, short stories, graphic novels, etc. were released, read, and enjoyed by fans and critics alike. In fact, so many works of the genre were released that it was difficult to keep up with all of the new releases. Luckily, recommendations and award nominations forces readers to catch up. That being said, I’m glad I got to read and to rate C.L. Polk’s Witchmark. This novel is one of many that I didn’t get to read when it was released in 2018.

            Dr. Miles Singer—the protagonist—is a psychiatrist and a veteran of the war that just ended between Aeland and Laneer. He is making his rounds when a man stumbles into the hospital carrying a man who claims he’s been poisoned. The dying man—Nick Elliot—calls Dr. Singer, “Starred One” and “Sir Christopher,” then transfers his power to Miles before dying. All of this happens in front of the man who brought Nick Elliot into the hospital—Tristan Hunter. Dr. Singer is worried that his cover is blown and his true identity—Sir Christopher Miles Hensley—is known to both strangers, one of whom is now dead. Dr. Singer and Tristan Hunter must explore the societal world of Aeland in order to solve the mystery of Nick Elliot’s death and what’s causing the hallucinations in the veterans at the hospital. It is revealed that Dr. Miles Singer is from a powerful family of magicians; except, he didn’t inherit the powers of a “mage.” Instead, Miles is a “witch”; he has a lesser power and it is believed, even by him, that all he’s good for is to be a “Secondary,” or an enslaved magical source for mages. Miles—knowing it was either enslavement, or commitment to a witches’ asylum—ran away from home and joined the army, where he used his healing power to become a doctor. Nick Elliot’s death reveals that Miles’ life is in jeopardy. Tristan Hunter is an Amaranthine, a celestial being with more power than any witch or mage. He was sent by his Royal Court to solve a mystery that is tied to Nick Elliot’s murder. During this investigation, Miles is recognized by his younger sister, Grace, who is both a mage and the heir to their family’s legacy, and Miles’ “Superior.” Grace needs Miles’ help to secure an election so that she can make reforms for Secondaries like him. Of the three characters, it is Grace who develops the most and it’s because of all of the revelations uncovered by the trio. This unraveling of political conspiracies presents the corruption and the fear that led to Miles fleeing his previous life. Yet, it is more than Miles, Tristan, and Grace knew about beforehand. 

            The plot involves a mystery within this fantasy story. Nick Elliot knew he was dying, and he sought out Dr. Miles Singer. In his last moments Nick Elliot says, “They needed the souls,” and transfers his power and his soul to Miles. Tristan Hunter is from another realm and he’s trying to solve the mystery of these lost souls. Miles, in keeping with appearances, attends a dinner in which he is reacquainted with his sister, Grace, who thought he was dead. Miles now has to solve a mystery, stay away from his family to avoid bondage, and make sure that none of his patients become mass murderers due to their PTSD. Meanwhile, sparks fly between Miles and Tristan, which is an issue. Not because of the homosexuality—the magic world is open to all forms of sexuality—but because relationships between mages and witches, and Amaranthines are taboo. The romance is as beautiful as it is described by the author and is appropriate for an alternative Edwardian English society. Even though this is a fantasy, the mystery is central to the plot of the novel. In other words, Witchmark is a mystery novel set in a fantasy world. Once this is comprehended by the reader(s), then the plot begins to make more sense and continues at an appropriate pace. Besides the romance, the societal world of Aeland is the subplot of this novel. The author wants the reader to know that the magic world is just as power hungry, corrupt, and prejudice as the human world. And, similar to other subplots in other novels, this subplot will not be resolved by this novel’s end but will become ubiquitous to everyone living in those societies. The denizens have to decide whether or not it should be resolved. 

            The narrative follows Miles’ P.O.V. Throughout the novel, Miles’ feelings and emotions about his past, his family his career, his choices, and his love for Tristan presents the narrative to be stream-of-consciousness. All of Miles’ thoughts, fears, and knowledge is presented to the reader. It is through him that the readers learn about the setting, the magic world and its rules, and the multiple conflicts. Miles being a victim of his family’s and society’s abuse make him both a sympathetic and a reliable narrator. The fact that Miles uncovers more of what has been happening in secret as he unravels Nick Elliot’s murder and the horrors that lead up to it allows the readers to have a mirrored reaction to Miles’. As long as readers remember that the novel is both fantasy and mystery, the narrative is easy to follow. 

            The style of writing C.L. Polk uses makes her debut novel captivating. First, incorporating PTSD in the veterans of the war provides realism to the readers. Miles being a psychiatrist during an era in which both the medical community and public society chastised such notions surrounding mental health and war veterans is commendable. Next, magic systems and hierarchy are part of both the plot and the mystery in this story. Secondaries being seen as a source for magic for mages provides a different outlook on magic and its societal norms. Polk’s tone of this “magic system” reflects English history and how they always felt they had to conquer another group of people in order to feel powerful. The mood within the novel illustrate why Miles—and other Secondaries—fled their homes. This magic world is as corrupt and stringent as ours, but with harsher abuses of power. Last, Polk’s writing is as much of a political statement as it is an immersive fantasy story. And, magical gifts are as essential as the witch, or the mage who wields it.

            The appeal surrounding Witchmark is well-deserved. Polk does an amazing job of combining history, psychology, mystery and romance into this all-around fantasy novel. It’s been nominated for several literary awards including the 2019 Nebula Award for Best Novel and the 2019 Lambda Literary, or Lammy, Award for Best LGBTQ SF/F/Horror (Book). This lets speculative fiction fans know that this book should be read. The follow-up to Witchmark, Stormsong, will pick up where the last novel left off. This will let readers—who are interested—know whether or not the author will build-up on her world. I hope she does because it will let us know what happens next. Witchmark is an amazing addition to the literary canon! 

            C.L. Polk’s debut novel is a multi-genre text that can be read and enjoyed by readers, and not just fantasy fans. Witchmark provides a beautiful romance readers of all sexualities can relate to including the numerous mentions of marriage. The balance between fantasy and mystery presents Witchmark as a unique reading experience to everyone who reads it. The characters, the plot, the narrative, the setting, and the style fit together as you continue reading the story. You will find this book to be as enjoyable as I did, with the reminder that magic is what the user makes of it.

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