The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern: Audiobook Review

The Starless Sea is one of the most anticipated fiction novels of the year, and we break down everything that makes it epic and wonderful.

The Starless Sea was written by Erin Morgenstern and was narrated by Dominique Hoffman, Dion Graham, Bahni Turpin, Fiona Hardingham, Allan Corduna, and Jorjeana Marie.

The Starless Sea is a book that lovers of myth and magic, fantasy-readers, librarians and book-lovers, will no doubt enjoy. Fans of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials or the symbol-rich worlds of Ursula Le Guin, will no doubt, be utterly absorbed by The Starless Sea. Morgenstern’s newest book follows a gyre, not a line, and readers who appreciate a complicated web of stories woven together throughout the course of one book will likely love her craft; readers seeking out clear-cut answers and linear plot may not appreciate this book.

Content & Storytelling

Erin Morgenstern wowed readers with her powerfully magical debut novel The Night Circus eight years ago (2011), and many of us have eagerly awaited the arrival of The Starless Sea this fall. This second novel boldly deserves the anticipation, the excitement. Listening to The Starless Sea leads us into an underground world of myth, metaphor, and magic. As in The Night Circus, Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea captures human relations, hopes, and dreams, while mixing in the supernatural, the uncanny and the unknown; and like her debut novel, it is one that leaves reader/listener unraveling plot lines and contemplating particularly powerful descriptive passages well after its final word—“delightful”—fades. I enjoyed everything about this book: its originality as well as the way it plays with myth and storytelling, its characters, and the progression they make as the novel works its way toward climax and resolution.

Morgenstern toys with her reader/listener as she contemplates the nature of story, storyteller, and what compels someone to stick with a story. The Starless Sea includes many meta-moments, in which a character deliberates on the nature of stories. Ultimately, this novel suggests that change is the thing upon which all stories seem to depend.

The Starless Sea is one part mystery novel, one part allegory, and one part ageless love story. The novel is about seeking and finding, about Time and Fate, about the inevitability of change (and the wake of destruction caused by attempts to avoid it), about finding doors and walking through them (or deciding not to enter). Morgenstern populates her story with characters ranging from gamer college students to pirates, painters, secret societies, cats, lovers, archive-keepers, bees, and the moon. Zachary Ezra Rawlins, Morgenstern’s protagonist, exists at the center of this novel’s web. Zachary is the millennial son of a fortune-teller who, after failing to walk through a magical door as a child, finds a mysterious book in his Vermont university’s library in his post-graduate years. The act of finding a single book changes Zachary’s life forever and sends him on an epic quest to see, like the reader, what will happen next.

In fact, The Starless Sea investigates, time and again, how one book might change a life forever after. The novel includes four other manuscripts within it: “The Secret Sorrows,” “Fortunes and Fables,” “The Ballad of Simon and Eleanor,” and “the Secret Diary of Katrina Hawkins.” As Morgenstern weaves excerpts of all these texts through Zachary’s story she explores the power of story, of myth, and of the written word.

Devoted readers will find this meta-fiction delightful. Morgenstern’s book of books, appropriately, includes plenty of allusion to other works both classic and contemporary: Lewis Carrol’s books, Oscar Wilde, Fitzgerald, Verne, and Sarah Waters, to name a few. The reader/listener could certainly pull a year’s worth of reading simply from the books and authors The Starless Sea references. Likewise, lovers of myth, legend and fantasy, will appreciate the ways that Morgenstern borrows from classical myth while inventing her own cosmos in which Time and Fate participate in an eternal dance, in which the Owl King shepherds in the future, in which a starless sea lies beneath this world and upon which shores lie harbors filled with books, filled with stories. Ultimately, The Starless Sea is an ode to archive-keeping, to libraries. Libraries and bookstores are the sites of many transformative moments in this novel, and, as any bookworm will attest, this setting feels appropriate; for, through stories housed in books, accessible in libraries and bookstores, readers might experience incredible change.

Length & Pacing

This novel grabbed me immediately and held me captive throughout. The multiple layers of the story, the historical fiction is woven into the allegory layered upon the mystery-turned-epic that comprise this novel mesmerized me. The more questions I had, the stronger my desire to listen and attempt to unravel the plot(s) Morgenstern’s novel presents. As a former student of the classics and myth, I loved the more mythic portions, although I can imagine some reader/listeners might find these intrusions lagged. I can also imagine that the many characters, and their unfolding dramas, might not hold all listeners enrapt, but they did for me. All the stories held within the library of The Starless Sea enthralled me, as did Morgenstern’s beautifully crafted descriptive prose.

Narration & Writing

This novel winds four manuscripts through the story of Zachary Ezra Rawlins. Accordingly, the audiobook employs a number of narrators. I found all six excellently suited to the portion they read: Dominique Hoffman narrates Zachary Ezra Rawlins storyline; Dion Graham narrates “Sweet Sorrows;” Bahni Turpin narrates “excerpts from the Secret Diary of Katrina Hawkins;” Fiona Hardingham narrates “The Ballad of Simon and Eleanor;” Allan Corduna narrates “Fortunes and Fables;” and Jorjeana Marie narrates “Another place, another time.” Dion Graham’s honey voice enhances the magic of “Secret Sorrows,” for example, while Bahni Turpin’s rasp feels right for Kat Hawkins’ twenty-something inner reflections. The audiobook’s flow relies upon the variation between the six narrators’ voices as The Starless Sea jumps from one text to another while the narrative arc builds in Zachary’s storyline; these readers were well-cast as their voices mingle throughout the novel, but also eloquently stand alone.

Morgenstern’s writing is at times succinct and cutting, at other times rambling and descriptive. Her prose guides the reader/listener through the characters’ inner thoughts as well as their exterior quests. The Starless Sea magically creates worlds within worlds through ornate writing that is somehow laconic one moment and strikingly description another.

Just as Zachary Ezra Rawlins finds himself awash in a sea of story, the reader/listener experiences the archive-like feel of The Starless Sea with wonder. The magic at work within Morgenstern’s novel highlights reality: the metaphor is true, fantasy stories become an everyday experience. Delight and awe stand side by side with melancholy and loss in this novel. Together they punctuate the tone of Morgenstern’s second novel.

Overall

Morgenstern’s sophomore novel is at once inspiring, daring, and beautifully crafted. The multiple layers of lovers and stories at work in The Starless Sea instigate many questions for the reader, and it takes hours of listening to begin to sort out what’s what and who’s who. This is an audiobook that I paused, went back and relistened to passages, sometimes multiple times while scribbling out quotes as I listened. I wished to re-listen not only to enjoy the lyricism and intimate details at work in Morgenstern’s prose but also to ensure I understood what an excerpt or a fable or a myth communicated.

This is a slow-listen sort of audiobook, just as I’m sure sitting down with The Starless Sea’s 500-page manuscript would be a slow-read. I found the honey-slow pace of my listening delightful, as I wished to linger in Morgenstern’s cosmos as long as possible. In fact, once I finished the audiobook, I immediately went out to pre-order the physical book, so that I might revisit it soon in the written word (and appreciate the prose and illustrations included within).

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