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The Starless Sea: 10/24/21
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern is a long treatise on the nature of story telling and fate vs freewill. It's a blending of myth and fantasy quest. When the layers are peeled back it's the tale two grad students being swept into quest to save a magical, underground port on the edge of the Starless Sea.
Zachary Ezra Rawlins, originally from New Orleans, is a graduate student in Vermont. He likes to read the forgotten books in the university library and he finds one that while mostly fables about Time and Fate as well as a disjointed tale of a metaphoric pirate, there's one story in there he recognizes as being about himself. It involves a son of a fortune teller and a door painted on a wall.
Like Seanan McGuire's Wayward Children series, doors lead to stories. Doors select those who can go through them. And like the road in [link]Rules for Vanishing[/link] by Kate Alice Marshall (2019), doors can remember their purpose and continue to work long after the place they were has crumbled to dust.
Wrapped up in all these layers of storytelling are homages to The Magicians by Lev Grossman (2009) and The Haunting of Hill House (1959). It's the inclusion of another magical Eleanor that might necessitate an update on the Three Faces of Eleanor essay to include a fourth.
Beyond the canonical references to those to works, The Sunless Sea mostly reminds me of two works by Tomihiko Morimi, namely The Night is Short, Walk On Girl (the 2017 film) and the anime series inspired by a different novel, Tatami Mat Galaxy (2010). Both share a world and a cast of characters who take on different roles but are essentially the same people. In Starless Sea, the same few characters return over and over through the stories and then in the present day adventure. Whether it's reincarnation or just stories being retold and evolving, is up to the reader.
Overall Starless Sea is full of beautiful turns of phrase and interesting takes on story telling. But it suffers from pacing issues especially early on. It takes too long to settle on Zachary's story and then when it does, he's too much like Quentin, who might as well be made from cardboard.