Published by Harvill Secker, Penguin Australia on November 5, 2019
Genres: Fantasy & Magic, Fiction, Fantasy
Amazon | Book Depository | Publisher | Angus & Robertson | Booktopia
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From the New York Times bestselling author of The Night Circus, a timeless love story set in a secret underground world--a place of pirates, painters, lovers, liars, and ships that sail upon a starless sea.
Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student in Vermont when he discovers a mysterious book hidden in the 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 an ancient 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, discovering his purpose--in both the mysterious book and in his own life.
As someone who enjoyed The Night Circus, with its enchanting imagery and whimsical storytelling, I was excited about The Starless Sea, particularly after reading the intriguing synopsis. It sounded completely magical as an ode to storytelling and the tales that are told, with a labyrinth filled with secrets.
Sadly, the reading experience didn’t quite match up with my expectations, and I really had to force myself to get through it. This is really the sort of book that would benefit from reading reviews prior to diving in, which would probably lead to a less frustrating reading experience overall.
It started off promising, as we learn about Zachary, a university student studying game theory discovering an intriguing book called Sweet Sorrows in his university library. I was completely intrigued and wanted to know about the mysteries behind the book, particularly the symbols featuring a bee, a key and a sword.
A messy, jarring experience
Zachary isn’t sure where he’s going even though his destination is set in his mind, or at least it had been when he’d left his room originally, how long ago was that? Story time has confused his sense of actual time.
Zachary’s adventure soon diverges into other tales that are mixed into the story – and over the course of the novel, passages from five other books will appear in the story. I soon found myself caring less about the main story arc, and more about the side characters that appeared, such as Simon and Eleanor. Characters and objects and even narratives within these stories would appear throughout the book, which I found to be confusing and messy. This is a book that requires a lot of patience – and whether you would appreciate this, depends on the type of story you are looking for.
A passive character that things happened to
Another reason why I struggled to get through The Starless Sea, was because I didn’t really care about the main character. While the surroundings were beautiful and the world-building of The Starless Sea was absolutely stunning, the same cannot be said for Zachary as a character. He was a passive character that things happened to over the course of the book, and I couldn’t even describe his personality to you even after finishing the book.
Vague, whimsical and descriptive
One does not simply disappear for moments and claim to be vanished for months on end.
If I was to describe The Starless Sea in three words, I would call it vague, whimsical and descriptive. It’s filled with metaphors and every single detail about its surroundings are provided. Reading this book requires a lot of patience, especially if you’re used to reading books that feature a strong plot from the get go. It takes a long, long time to get to the point of it all, especially with the amount of other stories that are intermingled with the main one.
Was it worth it in the end?
So why did I continue reading The Starless Sea, if I wasn’t really enjoying it? I wanted to know if there was a point to everything that Zachary was experiencing (not to mention a point to me devoting many hours to getting to the midpoint of the book). I’m glad I finished the book, because it does come together in the end. I also enjoyed one of the side stories, The Secret Diary of Katrina Hawkins a lot more because it was grounded in realism compared to the rest of the other stories. However, it took a lot of struggling and frustration to get there.
The Starless Sea is not going to be a book for everyone. As someone who likes character and/or plot-driven stories, I need someone to care about, someone to root for, and a story to envelop myself in and this didn’t really offer that for me. I would recommend it for those who have the patience for a book that takes a long time to get to its final destination, with descriptive and whimsical storytelling in between.
Rating: 2 out of 5
Thanks to Penguin Random House for sending me a review copy.
The Starless Sea is available from Australian bookstores for RRP$32.99 or from The Book Depository.