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'The Starless Sea' review: A mythical tale with Potter-level potential

"The Starless Sea" (Doubleday) is a new fantasy by Erin Morgenstern..... Credit: Doubleday

THE STARLESS SEA by Erin Morgenstern (Doubleday, 498 pp., $28.95)

“The Starless Sea” is the second novel from Erin Morgenstern, who debuted with “The Night Circus” eight years ago. Since then, it has sold 2 million copies in the United States, and has been translated into 37 languages. The author’s sophomore effort may blow up the Morgenstern phenomenon even bigger, because “The Starless Sea” is the kind of book that could spawn a Harry Potter-esque cult. I can imagine fan sites devoted to mapping, analyzing and connecting the dots among its fantastical intricacies. I predict readers for whom it will become a holy of holies, one of their most treasured books of all time. It’s that kind of book. 

In essence, it is a story about stories, all essentially relating to Fate and Time. Morgenstern nests a glittering trove of meta-narratives, myths, folkloric fables within a main storyline about a hero’s quest. That hero is a nerdy, gay grad student named Zachary Ezra Rawlins who studies “video game design, with a focus on psychology and gender issues.” He is shy, awkward and generally adorable.

But before we are introduced to Zachary, we are presented with three short tales, all labeled as excerpts from a book called “Sweet Sorrows.” Taken together, they lay the foundations of Morgenstern’s imagined world. 

One tells a story about an imprisoned pirate and his love, letting us know that “the pirate is a metaphor but also still a person.”

The second describes an underground world, a series of tunnels and rooms on the shores of the Starless Sea (no stars underground, of course). It is essentially a sprawling library, a place filled with stories, cataloged and cared for by acolytes who are initiated via a painful ritual. 

The third story tells of a boy, the son of a fortuneteller, who finds a door one day but does not open it.

We then move to January 2015, where Zachary is in the library of his university. He picks up a mis-shelved book with no author called “Sweet Sorrows.” It begins with the three stories described above. As he reads the third story, Zachary’s hands begin to shake. He is the son of a fortuneteller, and the incidents described here are exactly what happened to him one day on the way home from school. 

From there, the story unfurls — first at the university, then in New York City at a party at the Algonquin Hotel, then in the underground world. More stories from “Sweet Sorrows” are included, and a person who wants to get this book away from Zachary arrives on the scene, as does Zachary’s mysterious love interest who goes by the name of Dorian. A second series of tales, these from a book called “Fortunes and Fables,” begins. 

To attempt to describe much more of this book would be folly — if you are meant to read it, you surely will. That is just the way things go in the land of the Starless Sea.

Morgenstern’s wry sense of humor and clever writing light the way through the maze. “On one late night,” goes a typical sentence, “she told him that she had been a princess, about the castle she grew up in, the tiny dogs who slept on silk embroidered pillows, and the shrew-faced prince from the neighboring kingdom she had refused to marry.” How about those tiny dogs? They don’t have much to do with anything, but I love them just the same.

As Zachary puts it, reading a novel 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.” Erin Morgenstern, for example, is very, very good at it.

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