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 Sisters of the Winter Wood”

The Sisters of the Winter Wood

By: Rena Rossner

Published: September 25, 2018

Genre: Fantasy, Magic Realism, Folklore, Historical Fiction

            “…Everything makes sense suddenly, and yet nothing makes sense at all.

            There have always been rumors about the Kodari forest and the hidden things within it.

            Now, I know we are a part of that unseen world,” (7, Liba). 

            2018 was a year in which books written by “established” authors and by debut authors were published and read by both readers and critics alike. So many good books were released in 2018 that there were a few that got lost within the pile. Rena Rossner’s debut novel, The Sisters of the Winter Wood, was one of those novels. This standalone novel has been compared to and enjoyed by fans of Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy; and, it’s easy to see why. The story is a blend of history, culture, and magic with wonder about the workings of the “other.” 

            Liba and Laya are sisters who are as different as night and day. Liba is stout and dark-haired, and Laya is willowy and light-haired; each sister resembles each parent (in more ways than one). And, like most siblings, Liba and Laya are jealous of each other. They both want what the other has and are oblivious to what they already possess. Liba wishes she was as beautiful as Laya, and Laya wishes she could fit in amongst the (Jewish) community like Liba. These wants and personalities define the sisters. And, when their parents leave them home alone in order to address a family emergency, the sisters are able to grow into themselves and obtain respect for each other. Throughout this coming-of-age story, both Liba and Laya realize what their parents were trying to protect them from—their heritage and its dangers. It’s only after coming to terms with their heritage that the sisters are able to accept themselves and each other for who and what they are. 

            The plot seems simple—almost like a faerie tale—but, it’s not because faerie tales are not simply stories, they’re cautionary tales complied with cultural beliefs. For the first time, Liba and Laya are left home alone. Between their heritage and the disappearances of their neighbors and their friends, the sisters are warned “to be wary of strangers.” Of course, both sisters do the opposite: Liba has encounters with men who claim they “know” her father, and Laya becomes friendly with 7 brothers who arrive in town to sell fruit at the market. At the same time, the sisters learn of their magical heritage and try to cope with the knowledge and the meaning of it. They soon realize that they have to make choices that benefit them as individuals before deciding their place in the world with, or without, their family. The subplot in this novel is the growing tension between the Christians and the Jews, which is based on the tragic events in Moldova in 1903. After two young Christians were found dead under mysterious circumstances, the nearby Jewish community were left with the blame and the potential pogrom against them. The subplot mirrors the plot in that while Liba and Laya are concerned with how everyone else will see them. Their microcosm Jewish community is on edge on what could happen to them all if the macrocosm Christian community continues to blame them for the deaths and the disappearances. The elements of the faerie tales work their way into the plot and the subplot reminding readers that faerie tales are not just “stories,” and we should heed them. 

            The narrative within The Sisters of the Winter Wood are told from the points-of-view of both Liba and Laya. The narrative is told in real-time and whatever is happening within the setting of the story, either Liba or Laya, or both are witnessing and experiencing these events, which makes them reliable narrators. The narrative is easy to follow because the story focuses on the events as well as the maturation of the sisters. Keep in mind that this is a bildungsroman story and we’re reminded, constantly, that our protagonists are adolescent girls.  

            Rena Rossner incorporates her story of magic realism and folklore within her style of writing. She writes in two styles in order to reflect the differences between Liba and Laya, and the way they see their world compare to everyone else. Liba’s P.O.V. chapters are told in prose and lets the reader(s) know of what is happening within the community. Laya’s P.O.V. chapters are in poetic verse and presents the reader(s) with the growing tension within her family, within the community, and amongst the magical elements that are hidden to all the other denizens. The fable styled morals can be found within the theme (the fear of persecution for being the “minority”), the mood (beware of strangers), and the tone (beware of your neighbors) in this folklore inspired story. The author’s styles not only illustrate how the sisters see the world, but also deliver the experiences both sisters have throughout the story. Liba spends more time interacting with other people and Laya spends a lot of time interacting with the other. Both styles standout, but together they give a complete story of all of the happenings within the novel.

            The appeal surrounding the novel have been well-deserved. Both the author and the novel have been nominated for literary awards, including the 2019 Compton Crook/Stephen Tall Award. Fans—readers and critics alike—note the similarities between Rena Rossner and Katherine Arden. The historical and cultural elements will draw comparison to both Nnedi Okorafor and Jordanna Max Brodsky as well. While this is a standalone novel, it’s a debut that will make readers wanting more from the author. 

            The Sisters of the Winter Wood is a beautiful story told with two styles of storytelling about two sisters adapting to adulthood. Fans of magic realism, historical fiction, and folklore will appreciate the combination of the genres and fall in love with the characters. It will leave you wondering whether or not your family is as magical as Liba and Laya’s.