A review by Nalini Haynes
Zachary Rawlins (never ‘Zach’) is an introvert passionate about books and computer games. During a foray into the fiction section of his university’s library, he finds a book in which he is a character. He reads the book several times in quick succession. He sits in his closet as he’s been wont to do since a child with a love of reading and a wish to find Narnia. A mystery entices him to Manhattan in search of a woman wearing a necklace with a bee, a key and a sword. This mystery leads him in search of the Starless Sea.
Zachary seeks permission, permission to act, permission to change, permission to be. Challenges to stop asking permission abound. Even so, Zachary still asks permission. His character arc is engaging and relatable: Zachary must throw off his self-imposed shackles to seize his prize. His prize is also relatable. So is the temptation to settle for something less, a pale imitation of what could have been. Morgenstern’s tendrils ensnare the reader, dangling Zachary’s dilemma before us to entice us through her labyrinthine narrative.
The short version — to read or not to read?
The Starless Sea includes doors leading to other worlds (a trope that seems to have originated with HG Wells then followed up in Narnia), impossible rooms bigger on the inside, the Brakebill’s bees and keys (Morgenstern specifies the source in her acknowledgements), Kat knitting Zachary the appropriate Harry Potter house scarf, Stardust, and so much more. Morgenstern’s novel features layers of world building upon layers upon layers. The author’s love for stories is complemented by her exquisite homages entwined with her consummate chronicle. The Starless Sea is the ultimate fantasy novel: it references nearly every iconic beloved book and game.
The temptation to delve into its mysteries would only spoil the story, so I’ll skirt around the edges. Personally, I recommend you skip the next bit and just read the Starless Sea. Warning: there are spoilers in the text below.
The Starless Sea vs gender
Early on, Kat — Zachary’s friend who recruits him to help with a discussion group — tells him that a girl is waiting to speak to him. She adds that she informed said girl that he is ‘orientationally unavailable’ (because gay). This is beautiful, both in expression and how this one sentence impacts reader’s interpretation of relationships. Zachary dancing with a woman is asexual. His relationships with women are purely platonic. But Dorian, the one guy that features large in the storyline? He’s the love interest.
I’ve endeavoured to decipher my love for queer romances. They’re non-traditional, potentially subversive, and possibly unexpected. I feel seen, I feel represented, although I do not identify as queer. The dominant discourse imposes either asexuality or sexual deviance upon disabled people, similar to the toxic narratives that used to dominate queer relationships. The Starless Sea does neither. It is romantic in the truest sense of the word.
The Starless Sea vs interpretation
I confess to being stumped by some of the threads in the Starless Sea. There’s a story about the moon (a pale woman — albino-type but not evil! Yay!) and an innkeeper falling in love. And another about Fate and Time. These stories don’t quite match up, however, because the innkeeper doesn’t die but his love does; Time doesn’t die but Fate does; the moon doesn’t die but she visits her love… Correct me if I’m wrong but these stories just didn’t seem to quite align to be the same people. Is it because some are myths? Am I trying to force allegories into perfect patterns? I don’t know.
However, I still love the overall story. Which is quite a feat: if I find inconsistencies, they usually ruin stories for me. I also do not like surreal storytelling and yet by the time Morgenstern delves into the surreal I was so besotted with The Starless Sea that I endeavoured to embrace the bizarre. Pushed out of my comfort zone, I learned to swim… in a sea made of confetti.
The Starless Sea vs vision impairment
Morgenstern’s representation of vision impairment irritated. Zachary is near-sighted and has astigmatism. I have astigmatism and albinism, which combination has similarities. Zachary’s experience of losing his glasses and describing his surrounds seemed to me like the ‘construct’ in the Matrix: a few items close by, surrounded by whiteness. Then he’d move to find more new objects. To be fair, Zachary is used to wearing glasses and having things in focus. I don’t know what that’s like. Nothing to me is ever in focus. Never. Let me tell you a secret: COLOURS DON’T DISAPPEAR, OBJECTS DON’T DISAPPEAR just because they’re not in focus.
Morgenstern emphasises Zachary’s eyesight and lack of glasses only to replace his glasses with a loaned pair. It’s not hard to swap glasses if, like most people, your prescription lenses are made in bulk in the factory. I’m not sure why Morgenstern emphasises Zachary’s eyesight. This seems to be a means to emphasise interpretation: like the TARDIS interprets language and text for its inhabitants, in Morgenstern’s alternate world language and text are interpreted for inhabitants.
The Starless Sea vs disability
Apart from Zachary’s eyesight (which is an impairment not a disability), the only disabilities I recall from The Starless Sea were self-inflicted. Or chosen, at any rate. Acolytes choose to have their tongues cut out to symbolise that they are not permitted to tell their own stories but instead write others’ stories. Later this appeared to be an allegory or metaphor, at least to some extent. Tropes about disability are well-worn, as is the ‘self-inflicted’ disability, not unlike the ‘disabled by choice’ and ‘faking disability’ tropes.
The ambiguity of the text, with characters avoiding asking the hard questions, leaves Morgenstern’s intent opaque. What follows — how others interpret Morgenstern’s text, what discourses are reinforced and how that impacts upon disabled people — is the key to deciding the goodness or badness or ugliness of this aspect of Morgenstern’s text. I am concerned that readers will interpret one character as faking a self-inflicted disability.
I love The Starless Sea. Morgenstern’s weaving together of tropes from beloved stories like Narnia, Stardust and Doctor Who is a love song to all that came before. And yet her story is not derivative, it’s fresh and challenging, complete with a character arc that challenges while promising romance. Like the Night Circus, Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea will be one of those books everyone is talking about. Highly recommended. However, if you’re discussing this novel in a book club or literature class, please include that discussion about disability.
Read this if you loved A Lifetime Of Impossible Days.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Imprint: Harvill Secker, Penguin Random House
Released: November 2019
Format: Trade Paperback, pp. 512
Category: fantasy, romance, literature