The eagerly awaited follow-up to her bestselling, magical 2011 debut The Night Circus, which was translated into 37 languages. It follows graduate student Zachary as he discovers a strange book hidden in the university library which tells of lost cities and lovelorn prisoners, and also—impossibly—a recollection from his own childhood. He follows the clues on the cover—a bee, a key and a sword—which lead him to a bibliophile masquerade party, and finally to a subterranean library hidden below New York, as he searches for the end of his story.
Morgenstern’s tale has shades of detective fiction, magical fantasy and even Gothic mystery – the character Eleanor is named after a key character in Shirley Jackson’s 1959 classic The Haunting of Hill House – but her ambitious 512-page novel is really an ode to stories and storytelling itself, and the joy of reading. The UK edition has a beautiful cover designed by Suzanne Dean and once fantasy fans open its covers and let their eyes rest on the sparkling words inside, they are in for a treat.
The resulting novel is a curious, disappointing and, above all, mundane affair that, for all its talk of magical territories, fantastic occurrences, strange mutations and obscure disruptions, is peculiarly devoid of atmosphere, tension and mystery. Almost all of this blandness can be attributed to Morgenstern’s prose, which suffers from a predilection for cliché, irritating antiquities and overemphasis: characters “appear out of thin air”; objects rest only “atop” (never on top of) other objects; and almost every important event comes emblazoned with a Significance Badge: “In this significant moment, if the boy turns the painted knob and opens the impossible door, everything will change.”
At her strongest, Morgenstern twists conventional fairy tale and myth ever so slightly to let the differences stand out in often funny and sometimes thought-provoking ways. In one meta-story, the local seer and mystic is not blind, like those of neighbouring lands and fairy tales of old, but ‘merely nearsighted’; it is not a damsel in distress but Zachary’s boyfriend who needs rescuing again and again. Every now and then, Morgenstern will broach a contested issue, reaching through fantasy to the present, taking the reader by surprise.
The Starless Sea rejects older stories: it makes its own. Its magic is based in the New York Public Library, in glittering hotels, and the beautiful blatant kitsch of a professional fortune teller’s house. Rather than a traditional fantasy novel, this is an artificial myth in its own right, soldered together from the girders of skyscrapers – a myth from and for the US, rather than inherited from older nations. Like any myth, it refuses to decode its own symbols. A reader might find this deliberate vagueness either uplifting or maddening, but the novel’s scope and ambition are undeniable.