I came to The Starless Sea not having read The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern's fantastically successful 2012 debut. Curiously, though, I felt as if I had, and even as if I'd enjoyed it — likely, on reflection, through a combination of the gorgeously evocative cover and the fact that it was accompanied by a browser game developed by Failbetter Games, creators of Fallen London. I felt as if I'd read the book because I'd played the game, interacted intimately with the cover art, steeped myself in a loving tribute to the book's atmosphere.
Conversely, The Starless Sea is a book that wants to make you feel like you're playing a game — specifically a game like Myst, with puzzles, history, mystery. While it doesn't entirely succeed on that front, it did succeed in making me feel like I was a child falling into a story again — which is, as the book establishes early on, very close to the same thing. Zachary Ezra Rollins is a fortune-teller's son, a lover of books and cocktails, a graduate student studying video games, and gay. We have a lot in common, and this book is, in many ways, tailored to my tastes so specifically that I found myself feeling almost embarrassed about it — which almost immediately becomes thematically relevant, as Zachary begins reading a misshelved book in his university's library, called Sweet Sorrows, that includes a passage intimately describing a moment from his actual childhood. Shocked by this, he reads the book compulsively cover to cover, and becomes obsessed with its contents and provenance — as well as possessed by a need to reach the Starless Sea, a mysterious otherworld he failed to enter as a child when he turned away from a painted door. Zachary's childhood experience with that door is the third chapter in the actual book The Starless Sea, which we read before we're introduced to the character, and excerpted story texts weave in and out of each other like the titular sea's waves. While we read about Zachary before he does, he ends up reading all of Sweet Sorrows before we do, gesturing towards passages we'll read when the appropriate excerpt turns up. "Reading a novel," Zachary supposes, "is like playing a game where all the choices have been made for you ahead of time by someone who is much better at this particular game."
Early on, this is exciting, and did indeed succeed in making me feel like I was playing a puzzle game, being guided through a beautiful labyrinth of harbours and honey and bees. Later on, I kept expecting the story to resolve in a satisfyingly meta way — which it refused to do, instead setting up a straightforward villain and a plot that developed too late in the narrative to encompass the layers and layers of pleasurable mystery. Morgenstern does build a lovely, haunting, suggestive mythography, but it ends up competing with her narrative in ways that didn't quite work for me.
What did work for me, deeply and wholesomely and movingly, was the whole affect of the book, its warmth, its helpless love of storytelling and beautiful, polished fables. It's a book that's a pleasure to dwell in, a delicious experience to dip in and out of; I took to only reading it before bed, because it felt built of pre-dream sweetness, of that familiar, childhood longing for adventures that feel like home. When I finished it, I was uncertain of my thoughts about the whole; the next night, when I realized there was nothing left of it to read, I felt lost and sad. Take your time with it, as you would an expensive cocktail or a warm, honeyed bread. It's a lot bigger from the inside.
Amal El-Mohtar is the Hugo-award winning author of The Honey Month and writes the Otherworldly column for the New York Times Book Review.
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