Book Recommendation: The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

There’s an evidently successful fantasy fiction book writer from Massachusetts whom I suspect may be familiar with interactive fiction, perhaps through the Boston area creative scene. I picked up Erin Morgenstern’s 2019 fantasy novel The Starless Sea when I saw it at Barnes & Noble after a co-worker had recommended me her previous novel Night Circus.

The book is a masterpiece, and I personally found it both fascinating and familiar for several reasons.

It manages to be an ordinarily nerdy-fun fantasy read while also doing experimental narrative things. Characters explicitly talk about interactive narrative design. They also talk about and experience narrative in terms of mythology and (traditionally paganesque) magic. The juxtaposition of characters embodying horoscope archetypes while talking about grad school theses on videogame narrative is nifty.

The main character is a young grad student in a new media master’s program at some unspecified college in New England. He’s working on a thesis involving videogames; at one point he says his specialty is “video-game design with a focus on psychology and gender issues.” The whole vibe from the characters in the early part of the book really gives off the impression of the kinds of perspectives and subcultures often represented in the IF community. The book is set in the year 2015. There are a few conversations about interactive media and intersections between videogame “avant-garde theater” and things like that. More significantly, the game Sunless Sea from Failbetter Games is explicitly named dropped, as if in homage for the similar title:

… but a search for “Starless Sea” turns up little more than a Dungeon Crawl Classic that sounds appropriate but unrelated and Google suggests that perhaps he meant Sunless Sea either in reference to an upcoming video game or as a line from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan poem.
The Starless Sea, p. 60

(I’ve just glanced at search results myself, and I see that a number of other reviewers have noticed this reference, and apparently there is indeed a connection between Morgenstern and Failbetter Games.)

That’s only the tip of the iceberg. If you follow the story all the way down, you’ll sink through an abyss of intertextual worlds, designed not so much in the mold of epic fantasy worldbuilding as in an impressionistic re-creation of a traditional painting showing the heavens, the earth, and especially the underworld from some kind of classical pagan worldview. There are also interesting scenes set in New York City, rural upstate New York, and the greater Toronto area—places that may well be familiar to many readers from the IF community.

I’m a speculative fiction nerd as much as anything, and personally classify it as a low fantasy because it doesn’t have explicit epic worldbuilding or a backstory for its fantastic milieu, while having magic derived from lost and unexplainable mythological origins whose haunting absence is keenly felt. The absence of the gods is a key point; and though a common enough theme in fantasy fiction in general, here it is pulled off so well and connected to such an imaginative sub-world that I think of the book as the most thoroughly realized low fantasy that I have ever read. That said, it does seem to bend the fantasy sub-genres a bit, both because it has a pretty concrete secondary world and because it contains personification of the mythological forces responsible for that world.

The plot design is nested, as if the book were written in LISP. This is set up by the first three chapters, which are three different levels of story. The middle of the book is all about the intersection of these three levels through magic, prophecy, and time-bending. Themes of the story include the sense of stagnation of emerging adulthood and a reflection on the experience of interacting with the same spaces and institutions that defined an earlier part of your life while you’re trying to pull together a different part of your life, traversing the same twisty little passages differently. (No, there’s not an explicit Colossal Cave reference, but there is plenty of thematic evoking of adventure IF as well as other kinds of old videogames.)

The story is about the ambiguity of the early career stage. It celebrates second chances to achieve personal meaning and to find relationships. I think it encourages perpetual seeking and reformation of community, ultimately advancing the intertextual narrative as the platform for chosen community.

This ordinary static fiction books is recommended for IF fans.

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I loved NIght Circus but I distinctly remember DNFing this book…can’t quite remember why, but it did apparently take me 5 days to get to a DNF so I’m guessing I just wasn’t interested enough to keep reading.

I also loved Night Circus, and I did finish this book, but I thought it just went off the rails during the whole really long section about getting out of the underworld. I remember wishing the end was as good as the beginning. But one of my best friends has a tattoo based on images from this book, and she thinks I am stump-dumb for this opinion.

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Failbetter Games made a tie-in to The Night Circus which I enjoyed a lot at the time although I’m not sure if it’s still playable, so I imagine the Sunless Sea reference is intentional :smile:

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Thanks for the review. I am always up for a good read. I’m going to look for it on my Kindle.

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Your response makes sense, but I’m more leaning toward your friend’s side. This is a fantasy book, after all, and despite being a very contemporary book for us because of the cultural scene at the beginning, in many ways it is still a traditional fairy tale. Intentional ambiguity is a device that Morgenstern seems to be trying to use the fantasy milieu to get away with. We can each decide as readers whether or not she pulled it off.

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Loved Night Circus, The Starless Sea was just okay. It meandered a lot in the middle, if I remember correctly (as someone’s already pointed out). I suspect it’s a bit of an acquired taste, which I understand as someone who has a somewhat weird taste in reading material. Though I read it quite a while ago, so maybe I’ll go back to read it soon and my opinion’ll have changed.

If you liked The Starless Sea, a recommendation for you might be Piranesi (by Susanna Clarke?). If my memory serves correct, it sort of had the same premise as The Starless Sea but was shorter and overall more satisfying to read (for me).