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Literature / The Starless Sea

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"Once, very long ago, Time fell in love with Fate."

The Starless Sea is a romantic fantasy novel by Erin Morgenstern published in 2019. The novel's formatting is unique in that it intersperses the chapters that directly follow the main story with excerpts from in-universe works.

One day, Zachary Ezra Rawlins came across a realistically-painted door in an alleyway behind his mother's fortune-telling shop. Despite feeling an urge to try and open it, the more rational part of him decided it would be safer not to, so as to avoid the disappointment of finding that it was just a really nice painting. The door was gone the next day.

Fourteen years later, Zachary is a grad student at an unidentified university in Vermont studying Emerging Media (focusing on video game design). One day, while exploring the University Library looking for something interesting to read, he comes across an ornately designed but otherwise unmarked book. It has no listed author, but the title page reads Sweet Sorrows. Intrigued, he begins to read it and finds that one of the chapters perfectly narrates the day he discovered the door behind his mother's shop.

Baffled by how this book that's likely older than he is could contain such detail about an incident from his own life, Zachary sets off on an adventure of love, time, and stories that takes him to the Starless Sea, a mystical haven hidden away from the world. But he soon finds himself over his head as the Starless Sea is no longer what it once was, and not everyone wants it found.

This work provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Downplayed, but Zachary's mother seems very blasé about the fact her only son has been missing for more than a year when Kat goes to visit her. Kat is the one who spends time being scared he could be dead and investigating his disappearance. Then again, it's heavily implied that her fortune-teller thing isn't just a show and she knows what actually happened to him.
  • Accidental Murder: Wearied and traumatized by ages spent battling hostile creatures mimicking Zachary's form, Dorian accidentally stabs the real deal through the heart. Luckily, he happens to have a replacement heart on hand and Zachary gets better.
  • Achievements in Ignorance: The Keating Foundation spent centuries trying to construct a way for Fate to be reborn outside of time to give her back her immortal body. Simon and Eleanor did it mostly by accident.
  • Ambiguously Evil: The stars and the owls start out as antagonists, but the longer the story goes on, the more it implies that they are necessary, morally complicated, or even Good All Along.
  • And the Adventure Continues: The story ends with Kat departing to becoming the new protagonist in the reborn Harbor. It's implied that she, Dorian, and Zachary will be the new acolyte, guardian, and Keeper in the new Harbor, ushering in a new era of storytelling that includes video games, film, and other media in addition to books.
  • Anthropomorphic Personification: The Keeper and Mirabel are the anthropomorphic personifications of Time and Fate, respectively. The pirate and the girl mentioned in the first story also represent them.
  • Arc Symbol: Three, in this case: bees, keys, and swords. To a lesser extent, there's crowns, feathers, and hearts.
    • Owls, especially the Owl King, are also a reoccurring symbol. The Owl King is a metaphor for the impending end of the story.
    • Doors. They represent possible directions that a story can take.
  • Back from the Dead: Zachary is accidentally killed by Dorian, who revives him by giving him the heart in the box.
  • Benevolent Genie: The Kitchen in the Starless Sea is a low-power version; while it can only, for the most part, provide things a Kitchen plausibly could, it can provide any such things; it is also extremely good at interpreting requests, including in ways you may not have realized you needed. The Kitchen is actually the bees, working at the very bottom of the Starless Sea.
    • Among other things, when Zachary is poisoned, Mirabel asks it for an antidote, and not only is it able to provide a suspiciously-effective home remedy, it realizes that Dorian was poisoned as well and provides one that will affect both.
    • Later, when Zachary is confused and depressed and wondering if everything is real, he sends it a note asking it as much; it responds in the affirmative... as well as with tea and cupcakes to cheer him up.
  • Big Damn Kiss: Zachary and Dorian finally get theirs after Dorian is able to resurrect Zachary.
  • Central Theme: Everything has to grow and change. It may be painful, but trying to keep a thing in stasis will just destroy it.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Very early on, Dorian tells Zachary a story in which the Parliament of Owls tear Fate to pieces, but a mouse is able to steal her heart away and hide it. The heart is very important to the climax of the book as it allows Mirabel to send Zachary into death, where he can make the Sea rise and birth a new Harbor, without him having to stay dead.
    • The key Zachary finds in Fortunes and Fables gets pressed into his own chest, making him the new Keeper.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Almost every character that appears in the stories woven around Zachary's narrative is revealed to either be a character Zachary has already met, or shows up to help Zachary or Dorian. (Most importantly, Fate and Time are Mirabel and the Keeper).
  • Cute Mute: Rhyme, since she had her tongue removed at the beginning of the story. At least, that's what we're lead to believe. When the library sinks and they leave, she speaks again for the first time.
  • Do Not Call Me "Paul": Mirabel comments that Zachary hates being called "Zach", it is always Zachary.
  • Dying Town: The library in the Harbor used to be full of visitors, Acolytes, Keepers, and Guardians, but by the time Zachary gets there there's only one Acolyte and one Keeper.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The Keeper is only ever called that, even after the audience knows that he is actually Time.
  • Full-Name Basis: Nearly every POV chapter of Zachary's opens by reminding us that his full name is Zachary Ezra Rawlins. This is averted in the final section of the book, where every one of his chapters begins with "The son of the fortune teller."
  • Fur and Loathing: Allegra always wears a huge fur coat that Zachary likens to a polar bear. She later tells Kat the fur isn't real.
  • Hero of Another Story: Kat Hawkins, who desperately tries to figure out what the hell happened to Zachary and literally becomes the next protagonist when his story ends.
  • Important Haircut: The Keeper has endless braids with pearls woven in, one for each year he's been separated from his lover. When he leaves the library at the end, he cuts them all off in preparation for reuniting with her.
  • Masquerade Ball: There are several, beginning with the one at the Algonquin Hotel that Zachary goes to in order to find out more about the Starless Sea. Later, in the Harbor, he experiences a vision of a past one in a ballroom that is presently empty. At the end, he dances with Mirabel in the afterlife.
  • Meet Cute: Dorian telling Zachary his story (which holds immense significance for him, as Sweet Sorrows eventually explains) at the ball.
  • Middle Name Basis: Mirabel decides to call Zachary by his middle name, Ezra, because she likes it better. Zachary in turn calls her Max.
  • Motor Mouth: The bees talk in enthusiastic bursts with no gaps between, though it might just be because they're really excited.
  • Non-Action Guy: Zachary is a poet, not a fighter; he describes his role in rescuing Dorian from the Collectors' Club as "sidekicking and getting tied up".
  • Non-Indicative Name: The Starless Sea is more a series of lakes and rivers. Until it rises at the end.
  • Ominous Owl: Played straight at first. The owls seem to be evil, and the Arc Words The Owl King is coming is extremely ominous. Ultimately, though, it's subverted — it becomes clear that the owls are not evil so much as a harbinger of the necessary endings of things.
  • Pinball Protagonist: Zachary tends to go along with what other people (or books) tell him to do because he doesn't like making his own decisions. Mirabel calls him out on it towards the ends of the book, telling him all this could have been sorted out much faster if he'd gone through the door the first time.
  • Portal Picture: While most doors to the Starless Sea used to be actual doors, Zachary encounters one that's just painted onto a wall. Mirabel has been going around painting them because Allegra has systematically destroyed the real ones.
  • Resurrective Immortality: Mirabel has this, which causes some heartache, as her true love is stuck with The Slow Path and has repeatedly watched her die. This time around, however, she's finally lucked into a body that's immortal.
  • The Slow Path:
    • The Keeper/Time has nothing to do but wait until Mirabel/Fate reincarnates again.
    • From Eleanor's perspective, Simon randomly appears and disappears in the same room over months or years worth of time. The first time she encounters him, she's only a child. The second time, she's a grown woman, when it's been only minutes for him. The third time, she has to check the room repeatedly for six months before he shows up again, while for him it was only ten minutes.
  • Soul Jar: The heart in the box that the story-sculptor made, which the innkeeper gives to Dorian. It's not clear if the heart is Fate's, or if it merely belongs to Fate. Dorian uses it to resurrect Zachary.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Fate and Time are literally star-crossed, as the actual stars declared that they couldn't be together because it was causing the rest of the universe too much trouble, and had Fate murdered to ensure they would be kept apart. Simon and Eleanor are also this, as they were only able to be together for a little while before they got lost outside of time. By the end of the book, both couples are reunited properly.
  • Trap Is the Only Option: Mirabel is fairly blasé about the fact that the Collectors' Club have set a trap to get Zachary's book with Dorian as the bait—she basically says they'll just go ahead and spring it, since not rescuing Dorian isn't an option.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Allegra genuinely believes she's doing the right thing. She had a vision of the Harbor being destroyed, and believes she needs to destroy all the doors to preserve it—she doesn't understand and won't listen to the evidence that the Harbor has to die occasionally, so it can be reborn in a new form, and that she's suffocating it. Her tendency to kill people who find out about it veers into Knight Templar territory.