Book Review: The Starless Sea, by Erin Morgenstern

A Beautiful And Imaginative Fantasy
Hardback Pages: 498
Publisher: Harvill Secker/Vintage Publishing

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The Starless Sea, by Erin Morgenstern is a beautiful, evocative and spellbinding story about stories.


Synopsis. When introverted bookworm Zachary Rawlins checks out a mysterious book from the library, it draws him into a story, an adventure, beyond anything he could ever have imagined. The book is filled with seemingly magical tales of love and loss but most surprisingly it seems to tell the tale of one of his own childhood memories.

Zachary has a desire to unravel the truth behind this book but his only clues are a bee, a key and a sword. These clues lead him to a masquerade ball, a secret society and a door, a door that takes him to somewhere else, somewhere filled with stories.

Zachary finds himself in line with Mirabel, a ferocious painter, and Dorian, a mysterious man with blurred loyalties, as he tries to find the end of his story and the truth behind this world.

And eventually they learn that stories are not set in stone and that,

“Change is what a story is, after all.”


Firstly, can we just appreciate the absolutely gorgeous cover depicting the bee on the front, the sword on the spine and the key on the back! (Suzanne Dean, Jemma Lewis, Daniel Egneus and Richard Merritt are the names I can find in the book in relation to the cover design – didn’t they do a fantastic job?) The cover drew me to this initially, particularly as I have not yet read The Night Circus, and the synopsis sealed the deal-and it was definitely the right choice.

“We are the stars…We are all stardust and stories.”

The Starless Sea is a book for readers, for writers, and for anyone who has ever felt homesick for a place that doesn’t exist, a book for those who have felt that desperate longing to experience a world you have read about. This is a book for people like me who use fantasy as a form of escapism, those who looked for Narnia in their childhood wardrobes and still wish it was possible to find that secret door. This is not a book for everyone but it was the book for me.


— Breathtakingly Beautiful —

The Writing Style And Narrative. Morgenstern’s writing style is breathtakingly beautiful, it is abstract, complex and incredibly metaphorical. This type of writing style can be difficult to understand, or may come across as pretentious, but it doesn’t in this book. This style works incredibly well, it adds to the atmosphere of the story and maintains the elusive and magical feeling that has been created. Moreover, Morgenstern is a fantastic writer, she perfectly creates this complex and beautiful language while maintaining an emotional connection between the reader and the writing, I was immediately drawn in before I even knew what was going on and was so invested in the story that I didn’t want to put it down.

Some elements of her writing have an abruptness to them, a sharpness but not an unkind one – more declarations and statements that make you want to know more, ok so ‘There is a door.’ but why? These short abrupt declarative sentences were surprisingly powerful throughout the book and made you want to keep reading because you want to know why or what is beyond the door, the statement. There is an allure behind her writing that draws you in and keeps you there.

Furthermore, Morgenstern masterfully creates and intertwines multiple narratives and stories together. Initially, this can be slightly confusing. However, once you begin to recognise the story and its book (titled at the start of the chapter-so helpful) it becomes a lot easier to understand. There are multiple stories from three or four different books that are explored throughout The Starless Sea and it is done perfectly. These seemingly irrelevant but stunning metaphorical stories begin to weave into one another and eventually you begin to realise why you are being told them all. Personally, I loved this. I loved how they worked together, there symbolism, the story they told – all of it.

However, the current and primary story is told from the perspective of Zachary Rawlins as he discovers the truth and lives his own story. This is an interesting perspective to take because it is relatively passive – which is ironic and yet it works brilliantly. The use of this perspective allows you to truly connect with the characters and understand them while also immersing you in the story. I loved this perspective and thought it worked very well.

— Engaging And Fascinating —

The Plot/Story. This story is one that is incredibly difficult to describe- it simply has to be experienced – but I will try anyway. Firstly, this story is incredibly original, it is stunningly unique and definitely stands out in its genre. Secondly, this story is incredibly unpredictable, even as things are slowly revealed. Eventually you may work out a couple of elements but the whole story is so intricate that you never know which direction it is going, primarily because the story is ever changing. An odd thing for me to say because, of course, the story has been written, it will end how it is meant to but internally there are multiple paths and changes that make it possible for the story to go anywhere – it is ever changing, it is unpredictable.

The Starless Sea is heavily character driven, but there is a plot that runs through it. The story is about Zachary and his attempt to discover the ending to his story, but it is also about fate and time, about how we choose our own paths. The plot is about Zachary, but it is also about how he, and his friends, are fighting against another group who wish to close the doors. At the core of this book it is about how stories change and come to a close ready to allow new stories into the world. The plot is subtle and driven by the characters throughout because it relies on their choices.

The addition of the other stories and narratives gives the plot another level, more depth. The stories of pirates and lovers, of the moon and the sun, of fate and of time each have their own plot that creates a larger and incredibly beautiful and complex picture.

Due to the story being character driven the pacing starts of relatively slowly as the characters have to be built up. However, the addition of the alternate stories (that alternate by chapter) picks the pace up preventing the story from dragging. Moreover, once the main characters have been established, the pace quickens and maintains a good speed and depth, allowing you to get through the book quite decently. I love character driven stories so I adored this and was completely taken in from the start- it was thoroughly engaging and fascinating right up until the very end.

As I previously said, the story is very unpredictable thus the ending is also shocking and surprising. I loved how this book ended, it had me filled with complex emotions of sadness, relief, surprise, horror and shock – it is also a slightly open ending so there may be a possibility for a sequel (at least I am silently hoping there may be because I am desperate to see the world again – and other things I cannot say because spoilers!)

— Captivating And Magical —

The World/World-Building. The world that Morgenstern has built is phenomenal. The world itself is almost the same as ours but what lies beneath it is truly imaginative. From The Starless Sea to the labyrinth of the world below this world is simply amazing. This world is hard to describe, particularly at this point in time in the novel, but it is pure magic (though not a term accepted in the book it is a word that sums it up well). It is a complex place with time and fate and stories leaving everlasting marks but also undeniable change that leaves it not quite still. There are many paths in this place, and what is chosen determines how you experience it, when you arrive determines your experience, as does your story and your choices. This world is impossible to describe because it could be anything and everything for you but it is truly captivating and magical no matter what you choose. I love this world – it is beautiful, it is home and it is truly a masterpiece.

— Complex And Mystical But Real —

The Characters. Each of the characters in this book are complex and mystical but real – they are flawed and interesting and incredibly diverse. There are POC characters, LGBTQ+ characters and their personalities are also very individual.

Zachary. He is the main character, the son of a fortune teller and the man trying to find the end of his story. Zachary is an interesting but brilliant main character, who also happens to be a gay POC. His character is a stereotypical bookworm complete with glasses, introversion, and outright geekiness from gaming to fandoms. And yet – I didn’t hate it! In fact I loved that Morgenstern went with a well know character trope because, for this story, it was the perfect choice and it didn’t feel overdone, overused or old.

There is also an irony to his character, he studies media, gaming specifically, and talks about how their stories should involve choice so that as players we can have more impactful decisions, and yet throughout his own story he is relatively passive – things just happen to him. He does take initiative at times but usually he will wait for permission or until he is told to do something.

This is an interesting trait to give a character because often it doesn’t work but for this story it did because due to his indecision and lack of action you don’t know how this story is going to go, you don’t know which of his decisions are the ‘correct’ ones. It adds an interesting layer to the idea of choice and change that is dominant throughout the novel. Moreover, it allows for great character development as the story moves on, and adds a tension to the times where he HAS to make a choice because there is no-one there to help him. I was surprised at how well this worked.

Zachary builds incredible relationships with those around him, though his introversion keeps most at a distance he develops well (this is not to say his introverted personality is changed though – it is not a negative trait that needs to be fixed and he does stay relatively introverted right up until the end, which I loved.) He manages to build better connections in spite of his introverted nature. Particularly with Dorian.

So his relationship with Dorian is borderline ‘instalove’ which I usually hate. But, because of the finer more intricate points in the novel concerning fate, time and the general magical feel, I didn’t mind this. I loved this story – the love story that runs through the entire novel because the story is, in many ways, a love story. The relationship between Zachary and Dorian is, to me, symbolic of a reader falling in love with a story and the story teller. It is beautiful, metaphorical and adorable and it is why it works so well.

Kat. Zachary’s friend from University. We all need a friend like Kat because she is just a positive and energetic bubble of joy and I love her character so much. Kat is extroverted, nerdy and an absolute star when it comes to gaming and creating ways to make it more realistic. She is also a massive fangirl and I love it. She is able to help Zachary be a little more social, without forcing him into uncomfortable situations. She is incredibly accepting and loyal and determined enough that stopping her is incredibly difficult. Her character is brilliant and the more we saw of her the more you will love her.

Mirabel. She becomes an ally of sorts, a friend to Zachary. Mirabel is a fiery, talented artist who is headstrong and unafraid to get her hands dirty. She is dynamic and makes decisions easily, will run headfirst into situations and is incredibly determined. She is a powerful character with clear goals and is incredibly passionate. Mirabel is an absolutely fantastic character, her brazen fiery behaviour, her ambition and determination makes you easily drawn to her. She is smart and unafraid of doing what needs to be done and is an all around strong character with a strong personality. I loved her character, her wit and enthusiasm is flawless and she is certainly a force to be reckoned with. Her relationships with those around her are brilliantly portrayed and incredibly reflective of her character – she was definitely one I enjoyed reading about.

Dorian. An ally to the team of Zachary and Mirabel. Dorian is a complex character who immediately produces complex feelings. Upon his introduction you are immediately drawn to him and yet you are unsure as to whether you can trust him – It was brilliant. His character is wonderful, he is one that you get drawn to because he has that kind of personality. His story-teller voice, his charm and his wit makes him incredibly interesting and the more you see him the more you are drawn to him. I loved this character, there was always something about him that made you want to know more and his relationships are complex, amusing and passionate. The character is a passionate one with an allure surrounding him.

The Keeper. The Keeper of the Harbour for The Starless Sea. This character is an enigma – a great one. He reveals little about himself until a decent way through the book, his answers are usually elusive and he is relatively reserved – and yet he is a brilliant character because when you do learn more about him you are shocked but also full of understanding. I can’t say to much about him but I really liked this character.

There are a lot more characters in this book all of which are equally as interesting, complex and diverse but there are too many for me to go through all of them. However, they are all incredibly individual and are fun and interesting to read about.

Overall. The Starless Sea, by Erin Morgenstern is a beautiful and evocative novel about love and stories. I absolutely adored this story, this world and the characters – it is masterfully created and story I could read over and over again. There is so much to this story that it truly is a book that needs to be experienced from its themes, to its characters and, of course, to the bees.


“Not all stories speak to all listeners, but all listeners can find a story that does, somewhere, sometime. In one form or another.”

Morgenstern has somehow summed up the attitudes to her book in this quote from the book itself, this is not the book or story for everyone. But, I am so glad that this story spoke to me because this is a story that felt like home. It felt like all the emotions you have as a reader are understood, you are understood.


I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who loves fantasy, metaphorical and beautiful writing and readers who love elusive and abstract ideas woven together through multiple narratives and stories to create a bigger adventure. I recommend this to all of you who loved The Ten Thousand Doors Of January, by Alix E. Harrow and want another magical adventure involving magical doors, stories and love.

If you looked for Narnia, waited for your Hogwarts letter, or tried to wish yourself the Shire, then you will love this book.


37 comments

  1. Wonderful review, KitKat!

    I also loved Zachary’s relationship with choices — it somehow slipped my attention at the end with everything unravelling but I loved how he was basically always in-between of extreme single minded decisiveness and pulling back, expecting others to tell him what to do. It’s very much how I work. And it also feels like someone who loses themself in stories while avoiding real life would work? Jumping in when it feels like you’re finally a part of something but also hearing the sirens blaring ‘what now??’ right after you make a move.

    I would love to read more about this world but I feel that in the spirit of “I think the best stories feel like they’re still going, somewhere, out in story space” the open-ending was crucial and the rest is up to you to imagine? Or maybe I’m just overthinking this 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you so much! His relationship with choices is extraordinarily interesting because it definitely is a way a lot of people (particularly readers as you say) would and do behave. It is such an interesting concept because there is almost a need to have guidance, someone to tell you if your decision is correct or not, without it there is too much left to fate and chance- which they dealt with in a very unique way in the book as well. I think the tension of “what now” is much stronger than people realise which is why I think Zachary worked so well despite his passive behaviour, because most, if not all, of us have felt the anxiety created by ungoverned choices.

      Interestingly his choice of Dorian is interesting as that may be something he was least hesitant about! I loved the relationship here and how it was (to me at least) symbolic of readers falling in love with stories and the story tellers.

      That is completely true, while I would love more (even possibly with Kat) the open ending was definitely effective. Particularly with the whole idea of the starless sea and the cycles of it, the start and end of a story because stories have to end to make room for new ones. I definitely see your point, I did enjoy the open ending it was definitely a great choice. I think the world is one that I just love too much to fully let go😂 💜😊

      Liked by 1 person

      • Exactly! Many times I saw people say that readers would ace the stories because we know all the tropes but would we? We’re much more likely to overthink everything and then run in blindly chasing the story when it becomes clear that there’s no omniscient narrator telling us what to do!

        Oh, yes. I haven’t taught about it that way but it makes sense! Also, I think spending so much time with the Time and Fate while being forced to be vulnerable with each other — I didn’t really feel like it was such a short time? I feel like the time passing differently was somehow equating this to those experiences being… more intense? Like, chasing the story, the magic — it was all too big to enclose it in just a few days? Idk if I’m making sense 😂

        I would love to know what Kat has done with the place! She is already used to creating worlds in a way?? But also, I love this mystery and possibility! It kind of makes it all more special?

        Sorry for spamming you, I’m excited 😂😂😂

        Liked by 2 people

        • Hehe no apology necessary! I love talking about books and this one has so much you can discuss!

          I agree, as avid readers we are so use to experiencing a story by being told what happens without actively making choices that I think we would definitely overthink things, I would. The to, as you say, we would likely blindly chase a story because it is what we do anyway when we read. I don’t think it would be as easy as people believe, and I think that makes it more powerful because when we do have to make the choices then that is what defines the story and makes it special!

          Yeah! I love their relationship and how it is portrayed especially with Dorian’s voice being focused on because he tells stories! Ah yes, I agree it definitely felt like a lot more time had passed, Time and Fate was an interesting angle and really did make it feel as though time had passed. Ooh yes I like the idea of intensity being equated with the movement of time, it works well and makes sense. It added to the magic and did make it feel much bigger. You’re definitely making sense!

          Ohh yes Kat would have done something fantastic! I loved her character and I can only imagine what she could do. The mystery does make it more special! Especially because we know Kat is a master at creating worlds with realism!

          The twists and turns of the book added so much to it as well- especially the ending with Zachary and Dorian. That really caught me, I actually panicked and felt so sad for Dorian it was very clever and unexpected and yet made sense because of the picture we are shown prior to these events. The twists were very powerful I think, I love how it allowed everything to connect together! 😊💜

          Liked by 1 person

          • Ah, I’m 4 days late beacuse I didn’t go through my notifs in a while but!!

            I think Zachary being on the passive side worked so well because his inaction was highlighting the situations when he DID take action? It wasn’t just that the story was happening to him — it was a part of characterisation. He let the story pass through his fingers one time so he didn’t let it happen the second time even if it meant going to some rich people party and agreeing to do what crazy people tell him to do. He learned. And isn’t that an ode to the character development?

            I’m glad I wasn’t just rambling 😂. But I didn’t even realise it was only a few days on their side until I really thought about it? It just felt like more than the typical ‘we met in a high-adrenaline situation’ romance. I felt like they really experienced each other, in a way?

            Right?? I feel like Zachary wouldn’t be good with that pressure. And having experienced what the place was like before. Kat is perfect because we saw her taking charge of both real life and the stories. And she’s the new blood so she can bring a story uninfluenced by the old one.

            Oh, yes — I was so stressed!! Or rather mad, because no! This book just didn’t do that to me!! but it tied up really nicely! And it’s super metaphoric to have your heart changed forever?

            Liked by 1 person

            • No problem, I haven’t been on for a few days anyway since I have been unwell 😊💜

              I completely agree, his passivity definitely highlighted the times he did make decisions and choices! I like that idea, it certainly does seem to be an ode to characterisation and development, he is the perfect example of it.

              😂 not alt all! Same here, it definitely felt like a lot more time had passed than actually had.. it really did go beyond the stereotypical whirlwind romance and felt much more passionate and powerful. They totally experienced each other, they completely and utterly allowed themselves to do so. Dorian was drawn to and relied on Zachary like a story does a reader, and Zachary was completely taken in by him like a reader to a story, it was perfect.

              Ahh, I am glad you were stressed too! And mad! I literally reread the scene a couple of times to be sure!! Definitely metaphoric, it is a nice way to end the story and represent the character and his emotions and his relationship! It was a powerful scene! 💜😊

              Liked by 1 person

  2. […] The Starless Sea, by Erin Morgenstern – ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ I kicked of the end of December/beginning of January with this beautiful book and it was phenomenal, I dored every second of it and just want to re-read it continuously. It is magical, emotional and gorgeous! It follows Zachary after he found a mysterious book older than himself that somehow details one of his past memories. This leads him on an unforgettable adventure where he aims to find the end of his story. […]

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    • Ahhh yes the cover is absolutely gorgeous front, back and spine it’s just stunning! Awwhhh that’s so kind of you! I am glad to have been able to spread the book love (and grow your tbr 😂🥰). I hope you get the chance to read this, and enjoy it! Thank you so much for your lovely comment! 😊💜🐝🗝🗡

      Liked by 1 person

  3. […] The Starless Sea, by Erin Morgenstern. If you know me, know my blog, or have stumbled across my twitter then you will know that I ADORED this book. This was a hit or miss title for many readers but for me it was a big HIT, I loved the writing, the atmosphere, everything! THis is perfect for anyone who loves character driven stories with mesmerising, lyrical and poetic writing. […]

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  4. I found this review fascinating. Followed it from your best of 2020 blog post, and I agree this was a hit or miss title. This was a miss for me, though I loved The Night Circus. And the strange thing is, I agree with almost everything you wrote, and I loved all that about the book, but in the end I felt the book had this great mystery and all these symbols that promised to cohere or become at least vaguely understandable and I never really understood most of it at the end, so it didn’t work as a story for me. But each individual scene or moment was amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! Awh that’s a shame, I’m glad you loved The Night Circus though, I did too – It was a very magical read! Aha, I think it’s great that that you agree even if overall it was a miss – it’s always interesting to see people who agree but have different conclusions. Aha, that makes sense, the overall story, symbols and links definitely is what makes it hit/miss. I agree, the individual scenes were truly mesmerising.💜

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