Book Club Questions: The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

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.

Colleen and I had significantly different experiences of and reactions to this novel, probably as the result of our own reading preferences. I demand rich characters and an engaging plot that forces those characters into choices with significant consequences. Colleen leans more toward stories with interesting worlds to explore and a discussion of big ideas prompted by that exploration. I like having a complete and solid understanding of a fantasy world’s mechanics by the end of a book, while Colleen is often more willing to let those details slide.

In the end, Colleen really enjoyed this novel, with the desire to read it again almost immediately after our book discussion to re-experience its mysterious fantasy world and beautiful descriptions. For myself, although much of the writing was very lovely, I wanted a lot more in terms of strong characterization and character growth, a clear and quickly engaging plot, and a better understanding of the fantastical setting’s mechanics. With all this in mind, you might be able to predict your own reaction to Morgenstern’s novel based on your own reading preferences and how they align with ours! It was still an interesting and worthwhile read for both of us, however, and provided us with a rich book club discussion.

Book Club Prep: Hosting Ideas & Further Context

Discussion questions below the cut!

Question 1

Although eBooks are a wonderful format that increases the accessibility of knowledge and art, there are certain types of books that are obviously less suited for use on an eReader, such as graphic novels or picture books. However, certain “conventional” books can still challenge the utility of an eReader (such as a Kindle or a Nook) when it comes to the reader’s experience of the text. Do you think The Starless Sea is well-suited to the eBook format? Why or why not? What types of books are best suited to an eReader, in your opinion, and which are not?

Question 2

The third person narration of The Starless Sea maintains a rather detached and arguably somewhat antiquated voice, which occasionally strongly contrasts against characters’ contemporary dialogue, such as in this excerpt:

There are a few votive candles tucked into bookshelves and he uses one to relight the taper in its frame. The frame moves back up into place as soon as the candle is lit, the wall closing away the remains of the doll universe again.

“Meow,” the Persian cat says, suddenly at his feet.

“Hey,” Zachary says to the cat. “I’m going to go this way.” He points down the hall to the left, a decision he makes as he vocalizes it. “You can come if you want, if not, no big deal. You do you.” 

(p. 232)

Would you classify this primary third person voice as limited or omniscient? Do you think this third person narrative voice (and its contrast against certain characters’ dialogue) was effective in the novel? Did you personally like or dislike it? If you liked it, explain why. If you disliked it, suggest what you think would have been more appealing to you instead.

Question 3

In The Starless Sea, the narration often uses run-on sentences, as in this passage of description shortly after Zachary arrives at the Harbor:

The room is brighter now, light comes through panels of amber glass set into the stone above the door, filtering in from the hall. […] There is more stuff in the room than he remembers, even without his glasses he can make out the Victrola by the armchairs, the dripping candles on the mantel.

(p. 133-134)

The rules of grammar can certainly be broken if that breaking effectively serves the author’s purpose, as we discussed in our previous book club meeting for Tana French’s The Witch Elm. Do you think Morgenstern is using her run-on sentences effectively? Do you think your answer is affected at all by the fact that The Starless Sea uses third person, instead of The Witch Elm’s first person narration?

Question 4

After the elevator drops them into an ancient Harbor, Mirabel says to Zachary, “You don’t like choosing, do you? You don’t do anything until someone or something else says that you can. You didn’t even decide to come here until a book gave you permission” (347).

Consider this quote in conjunction with this suggestion from editor Cheryl B. Klein: “As a rule of thumb, I expect to see a protagonist make at least three choices in the book with consequences that affect its central action” (97). What choices does Zachary make in this novel? Of those choices, which ones are already approved or chosen for him? Which choices does he make with full awareness of their possible consequences, if any? Do Zachary’s choices propel the central action of the plot forward in the way that Klein describes? Do you think Klein’s metric is a valid one for this particular type of novel?

Question 5

Much like The Night Circus, Morgenstern has constructed The Starless Sea in an unconventional way that demands that the reader piece together parts of the story which are told to them “out of order.” Do you think this structure was appropriate for the story Morgenstern wanted to tell? (How might the story change if presented in a more conventional linear structure?) Do you think this structure was effective throughout the novel? Why or why not?

Question 6

Terry Pratchett once suggested, “If you use magic in fiction, the first thing you have to do is put barriers up. There must be limits to magic. If you can snap your fingers and make anything happen, where’s the fun in that?” What are the limits in The Starless Sea? Does the reader know them? Does the reader not know them but feel those limits’ presence? Or are there no limits to know in the first place? Do you think Pratchett’s argument for clearly establishing rules in fantasy fiction applies to a novel like The Starless Sea, which many people would consider “literary fiction” as opposed to “fantasy” (much like The Night Circus)? Why or why not?

Question 7

In The Starless Sea, Morgenstern has a number of characters (Zachary and Dorian (87); Eleanor and Simon (223, 240)) fall in love with each other almost immediately upon meeting, with very little evidence as to why. Instead, these relationships feel “fated” to happen, and have the inevitable air of the central epic romance of Time and Fate. Do you think this depiction of romantic love was effective for this particular book? Why or why not? Did you personally like it? Why or why not?

Question 8

In her blog post “Defining Good Writing (Possibly Sententious),” Cheryl B. Klein identifies the five following qualities as those she considers most important when deciding whether to purchase a manuscript.

  1. Good prose
  2. Character richness
  3. Plot construction
  4. Thematic depth
  5. Emotion

She then says:

To be a literary success, a finished book has to be really strong in at least four of those categories, most importantly (to me) #2 and #5. […] But a book can work solely as an entertainment, a page-turner, as long as it has #5; and if that emotion is strong enough and exciting enough, the reader will keep reading even if they recognize and care about the lack of everything else.

Consider your personal reading experience of The Starless Sea. Which of the categories identified by Klein stand out to you as successful or as lacking? Why? Which of these five categories are most important to you as a reader? Do you agree or disagree with Klein’s theory overall?

Question 9

When we briefly compared reading experiences for The Starless Sea, Colleen suggested that her more positive experience of the novel’s slow and seemingly disjointed beginning may have been partly due to her trust in Erin Morgenstern as an author. As a result, I was reminded of another recent conversation I had, this one regarding the novel Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore. I was extremely irritated by the treading-water nature of the first 20% of the book, which forced me to wait in a space devoid of character and plot until Cashore had gotten all her pieces into place. However, another reader who had loved Cashore’s Graceling series said she had no issue with the novel’s beginning, largely because she trusted Cashore as an author and knew the beginning would eventually lead to an excellent story.

Do you think the success of an author’s previous work can cause editors, critics, and readers to be less demanding of excellence when it comes to that author’s new works? Or do you see this phenomenon as a more positive one, which allows risky-but-interesting new storytelling modes to challenge the established conventions of the book publishing market? Explain.

Klein, Cheryl B. The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults. W.W. Norton & Company, 2016.

Morgenstern, Erin. The Starless Sea. Doubleday Books, 2019.

If you use these questions to shape an online discussion post of your own, please link back and give credit.

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