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).

Speculative Fiction: A Label for the Growing Spectrum of the Genres: Fantasy, Science Fiction & Horror

*My 100th Blog Post!*

For the past year in which I have devoted more time to working on my blog, I have gained a larger audience—followers, readers and other supporters—than I thought possible. Remember, even the most successful bloggers and vloggers start out as “small channels” and are thankful for those who support them. I feel the same way. Knowing that you all have taken the time to read, to comment, to subscribe/follow, and to share my content is a great feeling. I’m extremely grateful for all of you, and it’s because of you all I know what I’m doing is being appreciated by the macrocosm. 

            One of several topics I’ve been discussing with other fans, readers, bloggers and vloggers is the concept of genre and the limitations its definition bestows upon it. The notion that genres can and should be placed within “fixed” classifications is similar to the concept that gender is binary—which, it isn’t! Over the last 100 years, the genres have become more ubiquitous and more successful due to books written by L. Frank Baum, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, T.H. White, J.K. Rowling, Frank Herbert, Arthur C. Clarke, Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. LeGuin, Shirley Jackson, Isabel Allende, Haruki Murakami, Alan Moore, Stephen King, Anne Rice, etc. And, due to movies such as: The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, E.T., the Extraterrestrial, Star Wars, Star Trek, Pan’s Labyrinth, Akira, etc. Toward the end of the 20th century, other formats of literature and visual entertainment such as comics, graphic novels, manga, video games and music were becoming more popular and expansive. Imports from around the world—i.e. Japan, India, Spain, etc.—have presented popular works of these genres to fans as well. 

            Before the 2000s—I want to say around the 1970s—an emergence of works were presented and released to the public. Besides the Harry Potter Phenomenon and The Lord of the Rings movies, there was Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, The Matrix, and the continued book releases by Stephen King, Anne Rice and Robert Jordan. In addition, video games were growing in popularity and in addition to Mario, Sonic and Zelda there were Final Fantasy, Resident Evil and Shin Megami Tensei. Even those who weren’t reading the books, watching the TV shows or movies, or playing the video games were exposed to fantasy, science fiction and horror. Yet, why did some people prefer Harry Potter over The Lord of the Rings? What was it about Laurell K. Hamilton’s books that had some readers prefer her books over Anne Rice’s? What is it about Shin Megami Tensei, which has several spinoffs—including Persona—that has more of a cult fan base that players find appealing? 

            What I’m getting at is: how would you describe a book like The Northern Lights/The Golden Compass, the Dragon Quest video game series (besides Japanese role-playing games, or JRPGs), or even the Batman comics? Yes, one is a Young Adult novel, one is a JRPG, and the last is a superhero comic book series; but, aren’t there other genres to classify these works besides their marketing ones? Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy is a blend of fantasy, science (fiction), religion and philosophy—what did you expect from an Oxford professor? Dragon Quest is a JRPG with elements from the fantasy and adventure genres. Batman—one of the oldest and greatest superhero series of all-time—is a gritty and dark story about a traumatized man who uses his wealth and his wits to go up against the most dangerous criminals in his city. Nowadays, we would consider Batman to be a psychological thriller superhero series with elements of grimdark. Then again, with the recent success of the TV shows Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, there were many non-readers and fans who said things like, “I don’t like fantasy, but I love Game of Thrones,” or “I don’t like zombies, but The Walking Dead is a great show,” etc. Yes, those shows were media adaptations, which are examples of fantasy and dystopia books that “divert” from “traditional” or “familiar” tropes. However, there are fans of those tropes who are not interested in neither the TV show nor the books. So, why are those the exceptions? They are NOT!

            Speculative fiction is a term that is being used more and more in order to describe literature and media that fall under the “traditional” genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror and comics. According to Marek Oziewicz, speculative fiction, “includes fantasy, science fiction, and horror, but also their derivatives, hybrids, and cognate genres like the gothic, dystopia, weird fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction, ghost stories, superhero tales, alternate history, steampunk, slipstream, magic realism, fractured fairy tales and more,” (3). In other words, speculative fiction includes: urban fantasy, mythological fantasy, zombies, paranormal, space operas, metaphysical, silkpunk, occult, military, historical, romance, etc., etc. Any and all of the genres and subgenres makeup this term.

            So why do some people—authors, writers, readers, critics, academics, fans—use this term? It’s because there are times when a medium either has more than two genres associated within it or displays aspects of speculative fiction that doesn’t fall under any of the “fixed” genres. For example, the Super Mario Bros. franchise is a video game series classified under both “action/adventure” and “platformer,” but could it be categorized in the fantasy genre due to the levels being in an imaginary world, or could it fall under horror or paranormal due to the ghosts and the skeletons, or even science fiction, especially in the context of the Super Mario Galaxy games? In this case, the term speculative fiction would fit best for this gaming franchise. I should mention that I’m not the one who should be recategorizing video games. Then again, this is proof that the term speculative fiction is becoming both recognizable and interchangeable. 

            Speculative fiction seems to become the more acceptable them to use when explaining works and forms of non-mimetic fiction without listing all of the many subgenres associated with it. Recent examples include The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin and Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. The first has been categorized under fantasy, science fiction, dystopian literature and magic realism (the last one was on Amazon); and, the second has been categorized under fantasy, mythology, magic realism and historical fiction. Which is easier: listing all of those genres and subgenres in a description, or saying speculative fiction containing elements of certain genres and subgenres such as: a story about the end of the world and Mayan Gods during the Jazz Age? While speculative fiction is an umbrella term, many of us have been using it as a shortcut to explain a collection of books, films and video games. 

            Another factor surrounding speculative fiction concerns education and academia. How many of you remember reading Edgar Allan Poe and/or Turn of the Screw by Henry James in school and in college? How many of you remember reading The House of the Spirits, One Hundred Years of Solitude, or Haroun and the Sea of Stories in school or in college? And, how many of you remember reading one of the many dystopian books: Lord of the Flies, A Handmaiden’s Tale, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, The Giver, Brave New World, etc., in school and in college? Now, how many fantasy, fairy tales, and myths and legends were assigned to you after primary/elementary school? Keep in mind, there are courses and electives about these genres in college, but not everyone gets to take those classes (I was lucky enough to do so). Without going into too much detail, I’ve had disputes about fantasy literature with a few academic professors. Some of them believe that fantasy has no place in higher education except for in Children’s and Adolescent Literature (i.e. teaching, library science). However, scholars are responsible for some of the most recognized works in fantasy. Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman were Oxford professors. In addition, there are academic scholars who study and write books and articles about fantasy, science fiction and horror such as: Edward James, Farah Mendlesohn, John Grant, Nnedi Okorafor, John Clute, Jack Zipes and Tzvetan Todorov. This history and the study of these genres are just as essential as reading the fiction. I hate to say it, but speculative fiction seems to be the “safer” and the “more acceptable” term to use when it comes to discussing these genres. 

            So, why do I use the term speculative fiction? My simplest answer is because it signifies all of the genres I enjoy to read, to watch, to write and to game the most. Saying speculative fiction instead of the longlist of genres and subgenres is the easiest and the quickest way to describe certain works of media. If a book can be categorized in more than one genre or subgenre, then why not save the breakdown for a discussion with others in a fandom, or with authors and publishers? Most important, using the term speculative fiction does not limit the story of any medium to one genre. It allows a fan of a metaphysical book to say that “there’s elements of fantasy in this story,” or “the religion in this book is based on the myths and the history of this ancient civilization.” Speculative fiction is a term that allows an audience to observe the broader spectrum of a medium with similar beginnings and interconnecting styles of storytelling. However, there will continue to be moments where a book is categorized as “hard sci-fi,” a video game is of the “horror” genre, and Disney continues to fracture fairy tales. This is the new Golden Age of Speculative Fiction so we might as well enjoy everything that is presented to us while opening the doors for an open interpretation. 

            Thank you for reading my post(s), following my blog and my social media pages! Here’s to many more posts in the future and to several open discussions! Please like and comment here or on my other posts; and, be sure to check out the following references about our favorite genre(s). 

                                                                        References

James, Edward and Farah Mendlesohn, editors. The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy. Cambridge University Press, 2012.  

James, Edward and Farah Mendlesohn, editors. The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Cambridge University Press, 2003. 

Martin, Philip. A Guide to Fantasy Literature: Thoughts on Stories of Wonder & Enchantment. Crickhollow Books, 2009.

Oziewicz, Marek. “Speculative Fiction.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature, March 2017, p.1-22. doi: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.013.78

Stableford, Brian. The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2009.