Author(s): Erin Morgenstern
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Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student in Vermont when he discovers a strange book hidden in the library stacks. As he turns the pages, entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, key collectors, and nameless acolytes, he reads something strange: a story from his own childhood. Bewildered by this inexplicable book and desperate to make sense of how his own life came to be recorded, Zachary uncovers a series of clues - a bee, a key and a sword - that lead him to a masquerade party in New York, to a secret club, and through a doorway to a subterranean library, hidden far below the surface of the earth. What Zachary finds in this curious place is more than just a buried home for books and their guardians - it is a place of lost cities and seas, lovers who pass notes under doors and across time, and of stories whispered by the dead. Zachary learns of those who have sacrificed much to protect this realm, relinquishing their sight and their tongues to preserve this archive, and also those who are intent on its destruction. Together with Mirabel, a fierce, pink-haired protector of the place, and Dorian, a handsome barefoot man with shifting alliances, Zachary travels the twisting tunnels, darkened stairwells, crowded ballrooms, and sweetly-soaked shores of this magical world, searching for understanding, both of the mysterious book and his own life.
Anticipation is a dangerous thing. Erin Morgenstern had a bestseller — a phenomenon — with her debut, The Night Circus. The book is about a mystical black and white circus, star-crossed lovers, competitive magicians and a cast of acts fantastic in all their endeavours, as well the circus devotees in all their guises. Some readers watched for that circus to pop up unexpectedly in their neighbourhood. It’s been eight years between books, and this one will thrill some, but not everyone. More magical, more fantastical and more complex, The Starless Sea isn’t for the fainthearted. It has stories within stories, books hidden in libraries, doors that appear to chosen individuals only to lead them into the caverns and winding underworld pathways of misinformation, discovery and confusion; dead ends, surprises, beauty and words, stories forever and ever. It’s whimsical as well as captivating, full of symbolism, borrowings (fantasy tropes) and myth. Opening with an imprisoned pirate telling tales to a woman who will rescue him, only for that rescue to be thwarted elsewhere in the book, we flip to completely different stories in the next few chapters. The first part of this novel feels disjointed, but bear with it: as part of the charm of these stories is that they reappear, develop and intertwine throughout the book alongside the main characters' discoveries in the world beyond the mysterious doors. Zachery Ezra Rawlins — a senior university student — is spending his term break reading his way through the library. When he comes across a book out of place he goes to check it out to find that it isn’t recorded in the library’s catalogue. A manual entry is made and Zachery heads home with it only to discover that this strange book is telling his own story — part of it. The tale is of a boy who discovers a painted door on a wall, an image so realistic that it seems like you could reach out, turn the handle, open the door and step through. The boy hesitates and walks on. The next day the door is gone. This childhood memory is revived, and Zachery, understandably, is disconcerted. His fascination with this book leads to some detective work on his part and he takes himself off to New York to a masked ball — a fundraiser for the Trust connected to the mysterious book. Here Zachery meets the stunning and enigmatic Mirabel (a woman from the world beyond the doors) as well as the attractive Damian who sets him a task — one which will plunge him into the labyrinthine world of the Starless Sea. Part of the enjoyment of this novel is piecing the bits of the puzzle together. What is the Starless Sea? Why do some want to preserve it while others wish to destroy it? There are nods to many other fables and myths, as well as to contemporary literary fantasy worlds, and while this is sometimes distracting it is also part of the cosmos Morgenstern has built. Stories within stories within books, and books pulled apart and thrown to the wind — pages folded into origami stars and floated upon the strange sea, others cast off on ribbons — their words mingling and changing. In The Night Circus Morgenstern created vivid imagery, and here she again plays with descriptive metaphor and symbols, adding to the mix a heady scent — the forest comes alive with the smell of trees, humus and needles, the charred remains of a room a lingering reminder of things gone wrong, the sweet cloying smell of honey — close and insular but overwhelming. Will Zachery find his fate? Will Mirabel change hers? And will the young lovers find each other in the pages of a book or be consumed by the Starless Sea — a thing of beauty and threat?