Ever dreamed of being lost in a book — literally? Admit it, you’d like to fall down the rabbit hole, walk through the wardrobe, fly straight on ’til morning. Or maybe you want “to sail the Starless Sea and breathe the haunted air.”
That’s Zachary Ezra Rawlins’ wish, although he doesn’t know it at the beginning of Erin Morgenstern’s extravagantly imaginative novel “The Starless Sea.” Her new book arrives eight years after her high-wire fantasy of a first novel “The Night Circus,” and it’s just as magical but even more daring. Denser, too, and slow to give up its secrets, as grad student Zachary discovers when he begins reading an old library book, “Sweet Sorrows,” and finds a story about himself as a boy.
How does the book know that the young son of a fortuneteller once almost opened a door painted on a wall? “A boy at the beginning of a story has no way of knowing the story has begun.”
The book’s symbols of a sword, a key and a bee lead Zachary to a New Year’s Eve costume party, where he meets a pink-haired woman called Mirabel and a handsome rogue called Dorian. They will help him open the hidden door leading to a cavernous underground library, filled with books and paintings, mysterious tunnels and rooms, cats and candles.
Here, too, are the ageless Keeper, the silent acolyte Rhyme, a girl in a bunny mask, a man lost in time, a burned-out room, a derelict dollhouse, more symbols — heart, crown, feather — and stories galore. Some are missing, folded into origami stars. Or maybe they are stars. Things are never just what they seem in this Harbor to the Starless Sea; they are always more. The Harbor itself is past its heyday as a sanctuary for poets and painters. The mysterious Guardians are trying to close all the doors above, and the Owl King waits below. Can Zachary save this magical world that smells of beeswax and wine, smoke and honey?
Morgenstern’s major plot is the stuff of a bibliophile’s dreams, but she layers the narrative with snippets of fables and fairy tales, pieces in a meta-puzzle box that you may never figure out. Authorial flourishes and literary Easter eggs abound, allusions to illusions. There are nods to Tolkien and Sendak, Susanna Clarke and Lev Grossman, Grimm and Gaiman. The intricate world-building is nothing short of fabulous, the prose lush and filigreed. Still, it’s probably no accident that Patience and Fortitude, the lions at the entrance of the New York Public Library, make a cameo in the 500-page tale. Morgenstern knows every whichaway around story and myth, but you may well get lost in “The Starless Sea.” Bon voyage!
Writer and reviewer Nancy Pate lives in Florida with hundreds of books and three cats.
The Starless Sea
By: Erin Morgenstern.
Publisher: Doubleday, 498 pages, $28.95.