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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 Sunken Sea, a mystical haven hidden away from the world. But he soon finds himself over his head as the Sunken Sea is no longer what it once was, and not everyone wants it found.

This work provides examples of:

  • 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.
  • Arc Symbol: Three, in this case: bees, keys, and swords.
  • 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.
    • Among other things, when Ezra 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.
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    • Later, when Ezra 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.
  • 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 (most importantly, Fate and Time are Mirabel and Keeper), or shows up to help Zachary or Dorian.
  • Meet Cute: Dorian telling Zachary his story (which holds immense significance for him, as Sweet Sorrows eventually explains) at the ball.
  • 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".
  • Portal Picture: While most doors to the Sunken 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.
  • 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 burn 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.


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