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: “Gods of Jade and Shadow”

Gods of Jade and Shadow

By: Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Published: July 23, 2019

Genre: Fantasy, Folklore, Historical Fiction, Mythology

            Casiopea Tun, named after a constellation, was born under the most rotten star imaginable in the firmament. She was eighteen, penniless, and had grown up in Uukumil, a drab town where mule-drawn railcars stopped twice a week and the sun scorched out dreams, (Chapter 1). 

            I read this ARC in 4 days (finishing it after midnight on the 5thmorning)! I was that engrossed in this story that reminded me of both Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Márquez with story elements similar to both Rick Riordan and Katherine Arden. Gods of Jade and Shadow is a beautiful blend of history, culture, and mythology. Anyone who is a fan of standalone works such as The Wolf in the Whale and The Sisters of the Winter Wood will love this book by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. 

            There are 4 protagonists in this story, but the focus is on Casiopea Tun. She is the granddaughter of Cirilo Leyva, the wealthiest man in town, but you wouldn’t know it based on her appearance and her demeanor. Because her mother had married a poor native man—who later died—both Casiopea and her mother live as servants to their family. Casiopea and her mother clean and cook for their relatives while the rest of the family live comfortably according to their socioeconomic status. All the while, Casiopea’s cousin, Martín—who is also Cirilo’s only grandson and 2 years older than Casiopea—entertains himself by bullying Casiopea. Unlike Casiopea—who is pragmatic, yet hopeful—Martín is the traditional spoiled heir who has nothing else going for him except for his family name and the wealth that comes with it. He wants nothing more than his grandfather’s approval, which he never earns, and he believes his cousin has it (which she doesn’t). After a spat between the two cousins, Casiopea opens a mysterious chest under her grandfather’s bed with the key he left behind. When she opens the chest, she finds a pile of bones that revive into Hun-Kame, Lord of Shadows and rightful ruler of Xibalba, the Mayan Underworld. Casiopea learns that Hun-Kame was betrayed and imprisoned by Vucub-Kame, his twin brother. Immediately, Casiopea is traveling with the god in order to locate his missing essences and to help him regain his throne. The twin deities, Hun-Kame and Vucub-Kame are static characters (for the most part) because they are gods who have personas which are not affected by any change. Martín Leyva is a complex character who is forced to confront his demons, his family, and his insecurities, but that doesn’t mean he becomes a better person. It is Casiopea Tun who undergoes the most character development throughout the story.     

            The plot is part folklore and part bildungsroman. The folklore aspect of the plot follows the Hero’s Quest in that Casiopea leaves her home and goes on a “divine” quest. Except, Casiopea is compelled to accompany a god on this journey, and she doesn’t have anything forcing her to remain at her home. The bildungsroman, or coming-or-age story, surrounds both Casiopea and Martín. The growth these characters undergo happens because they leave home. Casiopea sees her chance to see the world and to experience new things; Martín, who had left his home once before, has no choice but to have these experiences. I’m not saying that Martín doesn’t need the experience that comes with leaving home, but it’s obvious that the growth won’t have the same positive effect on him the way it will have on Casiopea. The twin deities play their roles as gods, limited direct interference, which is expected. The subplot in this novel is family and family dynamics. Even though the setting is Mexico in 1927 (during The Jazz Age), some things remain universal and unchanged. There is nothing new about the spoiled heir and the “half-breed” child, but Moreno-Garcia makes sure that the long-term effects of such treatment and behavior remains realistic and believable. Martín, and the rest of the Leyva Family, know he’s not the heir anyone wants, but he’s the heir nonetheless, so the family finds it easier to indulge him rather than to curb his behavior. Casiopea, who is mistreated by the entire family, has a poor relationship with her mother because she never comes to Casiopea’s defense whenever she is abused by a relative. While both mother and daughter do care for each other, the relationship is strained. Casiopea goes on her adventure without hesitation because she has neither loyalty, nor emotional ties to her family. While there is both plot development and character development, the subplot of family develops and affects the plot within the story.  

            The narrative is an interesting one. First, there are multiple 1stperson point-of-view’s, and all 4 narratives are reliable because each character admits to his or her flaws and strengths during their P.O.V chapters. Next, the locations mentioned within the novel—with the exception of Uukumil(?)—are real places throughout Mexico. Readers can pull up a map of Mexico and follow the journey of the two adversaries throughout the narrative. Last, each of the characters provide both flashbacks and stream-of-consciousness throughout the narrative. Providing thoughts of both the past and the present not only allows readers to know what the characters are thinking at that particular moment, but also how and why they all think the way they do. This narrative method provides an understanding of each of these characters while allowing readers to choose for themselves whether or not they like, dislike, pity, etc. each character. The author incorporates all of these narratives into the story, yet it makes the story that much easier to follow along.

            The style Silvia Moreno-Garcia provides is a mixture of history, culture, and folklore. The historical events mentioned throughout the novel—automobiles, the Charleston, Prohibition, etc.—provides the mood of the story, which is modernity brings change. Each location throughout the story elaborates the clothing, the music, and the hustle and bustle illustrates how far behind the town of Uukumil is compared to the rest of Mexico. The culture reminds and informs readers that Mexico is a big country with a rich culture, but what Northern Mexico practices is not practiced in Central and Southern Mexico (necessarily). The folklore, while Mayan mythology is the main focus, fairy tales—such as “Cinderella”—is mentioned over and over. The author does an amazing job explaining Mayan mythology, Mexican culture and history, and pop culture, she mentions both fairy tales and poetry as cautionary tales to staying pragmatic no matter what is occurring in your life. In fact, that is the tone of the novel, staying humble regardless of any life changing events both positive and negative. Readers see the consequences of both examples within the story, and that moral is relevant in our modern times.

            The appeal surrounding Gods of Jade and Shadow are already positive (remember, I read an ARC of this novel). The book received advanced praise by critics and authors alike. And, it has been called one of the “Best Books of the Month” by Amazon and Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog for July 2019. I did mention that fans of mythology-inspired fantasy will enjoy this novel the most. I should mention that several years ago, many people throughout the world became obsessed with Mayan culture and history when it was believed the world would end in 2012. This novel would appeal to them, too. This book can be read over and over again, and it belongs in the canon of mythological fantasy alongside Circe and American Gods. Fans of historical fiction will enjoy this novel as well. 

            Gods of Jade and Shadow is an informative and entertaining story about change, tradition, desire, and family. The honor of it being called one of the “Best Books of 2019” are not just words, but fact. This book is definitely one of my favorites of 2019. Silvia Moreno-Garcia conducts a grim, but magical journey throughout Mexico while reintroducing what we forgotten from our world history class. This novel is one of the best stories that balance fantasy and reality in recent years. This is an enjoyable story for readers of multiple genres.

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