Book Club Prep: The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

Things have been on a long (LONG) pause here while I’ve been away at grad school for three years, but it’s finally time to get back to the regularly scheduled book club programming I’ve always envisioned for this website. Posting all the questions for #ANewChapter: A Science Fiction Reading Club helped me vigorously shake off some dust in February—but our usual adult-geared discussion materials are BACK, and I’m very excited to share them with you all.

Our next book club book will be The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern! Colleen and I actually read and discussed this book shortly in January 2020 after it first came out, since Colleen adored Morgenstern’s first novel The Night Circus and I figured her second book would probably make for great conversation.

Far beneath the surface of the earth, upon the shores of the Starless Sea, there is a labyrinthine collection of tunnels and rooms filled with stories. The entryways that lead to this sanctuary are often hidden, sometimes on forest floors, sometimes in private homes, sometimes in plain sight. But those who seek will find. Their doors have been waiting for them.

Zachary Ezra Rawlins is searching for his door, though he does not know it. He follows a silent siren song, an inexplicable knowledge that he is meant for another place. When he discovers a mysterious book in the stacks of his campus library he begins to read, entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, lost cities, and nameless acolytes. Suddenly a turn of the page brings Zachary to a story from his own childhood impossibly written in this book that is older than he is.

A bee, a key, and a sword emblazoned on the book lead Zachary to two people who will change the course of his life: Mirabel, a fierce, pink-haired painter, and Dorian, a handsome, barefoot man with shifting alliances. These strangers guide Zachary through masquerade party dances and whispered back room stories to the headquarters of a secret society where doorknobs hang from ribbons, and finally through a door conjured from paint to the place he has always yearned for. Amid twisting tunnels filled with books, gilded ballrooms, and wine-dark shores Zachary falls into an intoxicating world soaked in romance and mystery. But a battle is raging over the fate of this place and though there are those who would willingly sacrifice everything to protect it, there are just as many intent on its destruction. As Zachary, Mirabel, and Dorian venture deeper into the space and its histories and myths, searching for answers and each other, a timeless love story unspools, casting a spell of pirates, painters, lovers, liars, and ships that sail upon a Starless Sea.

Highlight white text for content warnings: death and dying, kidnapping and abduction

For those of you looking for hosting ideas, here are some easy snacks and beverages you and your book club compatriots can enjoy while discussing The Starless Sea. And for those of you who are looking for something more beyond the book itself, here are some articles and books which either tie into Morgenstern’s novel or expand upon its themes and content.

Snacks & Drinks:

Honey-Based Snacks

If you’re planning a Starless Sea book club get-together, you can’t go wrong with some honey-based nibbles. (Unless dietary restrictions come into play!) There are plenty of snacks, appetizers, and desserts that feature honey, but here are some easy ideas to get you started.

  • Baklava (if you can find it at a nearby bakery or grocery)
  • Honey-roasted nuts
  • Honey and butter or goat cheese to spread on bread
  • Honey-drizzled hard cheeses

Espresso or Coffee (Cream and Sugar Optional)

If you’d like to recreate Zachary’s first meal in the Harbor, you’ll want to specifically aim for “coffee with cream and sugar and a muffin or a croissant, whatever [the Kitchen] might have.”

Golden Milk Latte

This recipe for a Vanilla Turmeric Golden Milk Latte provides a solid blueprint for your first attempt while also suggesting lots of possibilities for customization.

Baked Goods: Muffins (Especially Lemon!), Croissants, Small Cupcakes with Buttercream Frosting… Anything, Really!

If you’re lucky enough to live near a good bakery, a book club meeting is an excellent excuse to hit them up for some delicious treats—whether or not those treats made an actual appearance in the pages of The Starless Sea! After all, I’m sure the Kitchen would have no problem providing any baked good you might desire. The more enterprising among you might even take this opportunity to bake your own wonderful creations—more power to you!


Zachary Ezra Rawlins’ cocktail of choice! There are plenty of different recipes available online, but the basic ingredients should be cognac/bourbon, orange liqueur, and lemon juice. If you want to stay faithful to Zachary’s cocktail preferences, leave off the sugared rim.

Sparkling Wine (Served in Flutes with Literary References Wrapped Around Their Stems)

Although there are plenty of book-related specialty cocktails on offer at the Algonquin Hotel Annual Literary Masquerade, wine glasses paired with literary references would make an easy nod to this event that begins Zachary’s grand adventure.

Further Context:

Portrait of an Artist: Erin Morgenstern Talks Video Games and Myth-Making in ‘The Starless Sea’

This interview with Morgenstern gives a quick look at her own perspective on her writing style, strengths, and weaknesses, as well as the process she went through in writing The Starless Sea.

Agency and Choice in Video Game Storytelling

One of the most contentious parts of the discussion between myself and Colleen revolved around the issue of choice in this novel. Morgenstern is certainly saying something about Zachary Rawlins and his inability to make choices over the course of the book, but I personally was not satisfied with how she concluded this through line. Colleen suggested my annoyance may have been because I expected Morgenstern to have her characters make choices like they were in a novel, but she was writing a novel partly inspired by video games and the ways in which people interact with that medium. I still don’t think that’s sufficient justification (especially since active, informed decision-making also plays an important role in video game storytelling, just as it does in novels), but I encourage you to watch these videos and make your own call.

The Feeling of Agency & The Illusion of Choice by Extra Credits

These two videos from Extra Credits give a quick overview of how choice (or at least the illusion thereof) is a big part of what sets video game storytelling apart from other media. The second video in particular dives into how creating this illusion can be challenging for game developers and what strategies they might use to make sure their budgets don’t balloon uncontrollably.

The Power of Invisible Choices by Game Maker’s Toolkit

This video offers a more advanced look at how game designers can turn players’ opportunities for choice “invisible,” instead of offering them an obvious “this or that” button-press. This design technique allows for more creative gameplay, as well as a more immersive experience.

What Is Magical Realism and What Is Fantasy?

Much like her first novel The Night Circus, Morgenstern’s second book often gets shelved in the “literary fiction” sections of bookstores and libraries—even though the vast majority of both books takes place in a fantastical setting and features a considerable amount of magic. With this in mind, it’s important to ask why some fantasy books are marketed within the elitist category of “literary fiction,” as opposed to “fantasy/sci-fi.” However, this question cannot be answered without also considering the “literary fiction” subgenre of magical realism—and asking what separates that subgenre from the larger—and less critically palatable—speculative fiction genres of fantasy and science fiction.

Lots of people have lots to say when it comes to this literary debate—and I would suggest that it’s worth reading a variety of opinions on the matter before coming to your own conclusion. And so I offer up three online articles that attempt to answer this question!

Book Recs

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

I read and enjoyed this novel as part of last year’s Seattle Public Library Summer Book Bingo for “A Book About Books”—a lovely, smooth, and fantastical read that extolls the greatness of both literature and star-crossed lovers. Per Morgenstern’s blog: “At some point in the last few years Alix and I apparently shared a brain because this book is a perfect complement to The Starless Sea and vice versa.”

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

A long-awaited third book from Clarke, this quiet novel takes us to the ocean-swept halls where Piranesi lives in near solitude, exploring a wonderful labyrinth filled with statues and helping The Other with his research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. Per Morgenstern’s blog: “In many ways this book is to The Starless Sea what Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is to The Night Circus, which baffles and delights me. It is a treasure.”

The Sandman by Neil Gaiman

If you haven’t read The Sandman yet in the year 2023, I encourage you to pick it up and give it a try! This iconic work from early in Gaiman’s career deserves the hype as its author deftly draws together a tremendous slew of literary and historical references in a ten-volume graphic novel series that is about (among many other things) stories, storytelling, and the inevitability of change.

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