Why You Need to Read: “The Light of the Midnight Stars”

The Light of the Midnight Stars

By: Rena Rossner

Published: April 13, 2021

Genre: Historical Fantasy/Folklore

            There are tales of red-haired mountain men and women who could work miracles, of a people who could trace their lineage all the way back to the great King Solomon himself. Tales of a people who kept to themselves, who lives in a tiny quarter of the city of Trnava where they built their own house of worship. They say that on the ceiling of their synagogue there were a thousand tiny stars, (Prologue).

            I’ve said more than once that history never stays buried forever because it always finds a way to be unearthed. At the same time, the knowledge finds other ways to be spread and passed on through posterity—storytelling. It is through these stories the audience can piece together what might have occurred in the past, especially when the audience knows what to expect from such stories. Rena Rossner presented a lovely tale of magic and sisterly love in her debut novel, The Sisters of the Winter Wood. In her latest novel, The Light of the Midnight Stars, we get a similar story, which is set during a much darker era. 

            This story follows 3 sisters: Hannah, Sarah and Levana. They are the daughters of Rabbi Isaac Solomonar and his wife, Esther, and they are the descendants of King Solomon. Hannah is the eldest and her father’s favorite daughter, and her talents include recording events and growing plants. Sarah is the middle daughter, whose temperament matches her fire magic—impulsive and strong. Her talent is the same as her father’s, but he refuses to teach her anything until after she learns control. Levana is the youngest sister, and she is always looking at the stars. She can decipher the messages they communicate to her. The sisters live a happy and prosperous life in the Jewish quarter of Trnava, where their parents hope to find them husbands who are worthy of them. Hannah meets Jakob, the son of the Duchess of Trnava; and, Jakob is willing to meet Rabbi Isaac’s conditions so that he can marry Hannah. Sarah meets Guvriel, one of Rabbi Isaac’s students; he takes it upon himself to teach Sarah about her magic, and the two of them bond over their shared talent and thirst for knowledge. Unbeknownst to her family, Levana starts seeing someone and it is someone who has spent the same amount of time watching her as Levana has spent watching him. The 3 sisters approach adulthood thanks to their parents’ guidance and the love that blooms from the young men in their lives. However, will it be enough for the sisters to survive their first trials as adults? 

            There are 2 plots in this novel. The first focuses on the love lives of Hannah, Sarah and Levana and what ensues because of it. Hannah falls for a non-Jew, Sarah must wait until she is allowed to marry Guvriel, and Levana doesn’t know how to tell her family about her beloved. Just as it seems like the sisters will live out their lives happily ever after, a tragedy occurs. The sisters flee Trnava with their parents leaving everything behind, including the men they love. The second plot delves into identity and the consequences surrounding it. Hannah, Sarah and Levana must choose on how much of themselves they are willing to reveal to their new acquaintances as they survive the circumstances which led them to their current predicament. How long can one’s identity be hidden before the truth emerges? There are 2 subplots in this novel and they develop alongside the plots. The first subplot is about love and loss. As cliché as it sounds, the protagonists and other characters have lost something (or someone) they love, and they are all struggling to overcome the grief and the trauma enclosing it. The second subplot is hope, which is cliché, too. Hope is what motivates all of the characters as death and violence continues to ravage the country. Hope brings out the resilience in people (and in fictional characters).

            The narrative is told from the points-of-view of Hannah, Sarah and Levana in the 1st person. However, Hannah’s P.O.V. chapters are in the past tense because her chapters are written as journal entries, but that doesn’t mean readers won’t be able to pick up on Hannah’s stream-of-consciousness. Sarah and Levana’s chapters are told in the present but in different styles, which is done because they match their personalities (anyone whose read the author’s first novel will know what to expect), and present their streams-of-consciousness, too. Each narrator unveils what they must do in order to survive in a world that seeks to eradicate them and others who share their heritage. 

            The style Rena Rossner uses in The Light of the Midnight Stars follows the history of the persecution of Jews throughout our history. The Jewish community were often scapegoats for any and all misfortunes that befell a town, a region, or a country. For example, during the Black Plague, the Jews were blamed for the deaths and the continuation of the pandemic. Many Jewish quarters were obliterated, leaving any survivors to wander to other places where some of them had to hide their heritage from the outside world in order to live. In addition, this book contains many allusions of Biblical (Old Testament/Torah) texts and fairy tales, which are well-written into this novel. This story will make readers recall what they believed they have forgotten about those tales. The mood in this novel is ominous. Who should the protagonists fear more, the Black Mist or those who wish to harm them for who they are? The tone in this novel is resilience. The protagonists demonstrate that they will do everything that is imperative for their survival. The style in the novel replicates all of the adversity the Jewish community dealt (and continues to deal) with and how they continue to overcome it all.

            Fans of the author’s first novel will love this one. The appeal for The Light of the Midnight Stars will be positive because the author wrote a strong follow up to her debut novel. Fans of Naomi Novik, Katherine Arden, Alix E. Harrow and Tasha Suri will enjoy this book the most. This book is an excellent addition to both the historical fantasy subgenre and the speculative fiction genre. Likewise, this novel is a great reminder of the importance of Jewish folklore. Once I started reading this book, I couldn’t stop until the end; and, that’s with all of the twists that transpired throughout the narrative. 

            The Light of the Midnight Stars is a strong standalone novel about family, heritage and survival. Rena Rossner’s style immerses her readers into the past where it was not always safe to parade one’s heritage. While I don’t believe the author meant for this book to be topical, it does serve as a reminder that there will always be opposition towards a group of individuals. Yet, it is those groups of persecuted individuals where we continue to get inspiration from for our daily lives. 

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

Thank you Redhook (and Angela) for sending me a copy of this book!

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).