Shine Bright: The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

As 2019 tipped into 2020, readers started compiling their lists of the best books of the decade. I thought long and hard, but the only book I had any certainty about was the decade’s best: a debut novel from Erin Morgenstern called The Night Circus. With a tenacity matched by few other books, The Night Circus has not left me since I first read it years ago.

I had big words for The Night Circus when I reviewed it for A Dribble of Ink in 2012:

The Night Circus is a classic novel that will sit on the highest shelf of my bookshelf, right next to The Hobbit and The Shadow of the Wind. … There’s magic in this novel and it deserves to be read by anyone wanting to be reminded that there is more to life than meets the eye.

Usually when I liken a book to two all-time classic, the comparison begins to show its age as the days, weeks, and years pass?—but not so with The Night Circus. If anything, the comparison seems more fair to me now than it did then, especially after having read Morgenstern’s much awaited follow-up, The Starless Sea. Like Tolkien and Zafon’s novels, The Night Circus is a book for the ages.

The Starless Sea is better.

We waited seven years for Morgenstern’s follow-up to her brilliant debut. Whenever there’s a wait like that, it’s easy for the legend to outgrow reality. At a point, one must remind themselves to practice restraint and cautious optimism. Over seven years, my respect for The Night Circus has only grown, and my expectations for Morgenstern’s work grew to perhaps unfair heights. But I needn’t have worried, and feel foolish for doubting her. Morgenstern returns with The Starless Sea a more confident writer, working on a canvas at once impossibly broad and intricately detailed, and with the deftest of hands.

The Starless Sea is the story of a student, wanderer, and fortune teller’s son named Zachary Ezra Rawlins. When he finds a mysterious book called Sweet Sorrows in his school library, Zachary embarks on a quest far larger and stranger than he (or the reader) could ever expect. Like the greatest stories about discovering a world existing beside, beneath, or beyond our own, Zachary’s is about finding inner strength, found families, and adventure. It’s also about love and destiny, belief, and, above all, storytelling. Like Alix E. Harrow’s wonderful The Ten Thousand Doors of January, The Starless Sea is a love-letter to the power of stories and their place within our histories, cultures, and selves.

Along the way, Zachary meets a small but vividly drawn cast of characters. As he gets lost in and out of time, all the while searching for the titular Starless Sea, and answers to his many questions, he travels through a world that becomes more enchanting and dreamlike the further he goes. As we all search for answers in life, Zachary does not always understand the answers he finds—but it’s in the asking and the pursuit of those questions that we discover the truth of ourselves.

In my heart of hearts, I hoped but didn’t think Morgenstern could follow-up The Night Circus with something that could meet my sky high expectations. But she has. The Starless Sea is another perfect novel from Morgenstern, and I’ll be thinking about it for years to come until she releases her next.