πŸ“š So, The Starless Sea. This is going to be fairly stream-of-consciousness and more about my experiences and reactions and less about the book itself. Because that’s how I write about books.

So, first, know that I love The Night Circus and pretty thoroughly regret giving away my copy. (Like, I don’t regret giving that book to the friend to whom I gave it, but I really wish I’d just bought another copy, you know? I may yet.) After reading it, I felt all kinds of magical, and got a little obsessed with the author, Erin Morgenstern. I don’t know if my librarian magic was failing me or what, but all the stuff I found online about her at the time that I read The Night Circus was fairly minimalistic and seemed almost secretive. I learned a little bit, mainly that she had been heavily inspired by Sleep No More, and I started to feel like I wished I could really knew her because surely we would be friends if we knew each other. (I’ve never been to Sleep No More, but it’s been recommended to me more than once and I’m pretty sure if I experienced it, I’d get fairly obsessed with it, too.)

At the time, I also couldn’t find any information about whether Erin Morgenstern had any other books in the works.

Flash forward to last summer at the American Library Association Annual Conference. I was working an exhibit table as part of Project READY, and one of the SILS Master’s students came by. I wish I could remember who it was. Maybe Claire Cahoon? I really don’t know.

Anyway, this kind and generous Master’s student came to the booth said, “I have a ticket to the Erin Morgenstern ARC signing, but I can’t go. Does anybody here want it?”

I said, “WAIT WAIT WAIT! Erin Morgenstern, like The Night Circus Erin Morgenstern? She has a new book? I WANT IT!” Then I said, “Oh, but I can’t go stand in line” because my feet were swollen really badly from me wearing too-small shoes and standing for, like, 14 hours the day before. But Meg McMahon, who was working the Project READY booth with me, kindly offered to go stand in the line and get the book signed for me. I said, “Just have her sign it ‘For Kimberly.’” So Meg stood in line and got the book signed and brought it to me, and that’s how I came into a signed ARC of The Starless Sea.

On the plane back from ALA, I started to read it, and was immediately charmed. But for whatever reason, it just wasn’t the right time for this book for me. I wanted to give it intense attention, and that was in rare supply at the time. (Spoiler alert: It’s in rare supply now, too!)

So I set it aside, planning to come back to it when I could give it the attention it deserved.

In December, W. told me that my mother-in-law C. was reading The Night Circus and really enjoying it, so I suggested that I get her The Starless Sea for Christmas. It turned out her sister D. was reading that one at the same time. This was the push I needed to pick the book back up, because I didn’t want to give it as a gift without even having really started it in earnest myself.

I picked it up one night and read it after my son had fallen asleep and got through the first fifty pages very quickly and really wanted to stay up all night reading it, but I didn’t, because that’s not my life right now.

I had to re-start it once, and sort of skim everything I’d read so far another time but not actually re-read it all, because the book alternates chapters between book-within-a-book stuff and then the larger narrative itself. For a little while I was reading one chapter a night, and it was very confusing because it was never the same story two nights in a row. So then I started doing a couple of chapters at a time, and that was good.

For a while, I couldn’t read it at all, because it is too magical and too luscious and too deserving of my full attention, but eventually I realized that no book will ever have my full attention again, or at least not for the next 15 years probably, so if I wanted to read it at all, it would have to be accomplished like every other thing in my life is now - in little fits and starts, in whatever moments I could claim for it.

And once I committed to reading it that way, I read quickly.

I almost don’t want to say anything about the book itself for fear of ruining it for other people, but I will say just a few things.

First, if you are a book person, or a story person, this is for you. Second, one of things Morgenstern does so well in both The Night Circus and The Starless Sea is create a truly immersive environment. I attribute this to three things: her background in theater, her affection for Sleep No More, and her obsession with Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab scents. (By the by, if you’re a BPAL fan, may I also recommend checking out Whisper Sisters? Their Goth Club ‘89 is the scent I never knew I needed. Until Jillian Venters told me I did.)

Anyway. You will feel very present in Morgenstern’s worlds. Very. Present.

She writes in the present tense, which is immersive certainly, but I know is hard for some people to read. I really recommend trying this even if you haven’t liked the present tense with other authors, because it feels different here. I finally came around to present tense when I started reading and writing New Girl fanfic, because it’s just the most natural tense to write sitcom stuff in, and it really works here, too.

(The Night Circus also has some second person stuff; also hard for some, I know, but again contributes to immersion and immediacy and is totally worth it to struggle through until it doesn’t bother you anymore.)

So yeah. The Starless Sea is about stories and what it means to be a person who loves stories, and how stories work and what it costs us to immerse ourselves in them and what it costs people to make them. But most of all, it’s beautiful.

When I got to the end, I was like, “Wait. It’s over?”

There are lots of delightful references and allusions to other books and to video games and stuff.

I made note of a few quotes that really grabbed me, and I’ll present them below. Know that you should stop reading now if you don’t want to have read a single word from this book before you start.


“You are here because you wish to sail the Starless Sea and breathe the haunted air.”
Zachary’s feet halt beneath him at the comforting trueness of the statement combined with the confusion of not understanding what it means.

(p. 123)

…his church is held-breath story listening and late-night-concert ear-ringing rapture and perfect-boss fight-button pressing… his religion is buried in the silence of freshly fallen snow, in a carefully crafted cocktail, in between the pages of a book somewhere after the beginning but before the ending.

(p. 126)

He wants to use [the book] as a window to see inside another person.

(I didn’t make a note of the page number for that one.)

Change is what a story is…

(p. 329)

There is no fixing. There is only moving forward in the brokenness.

Another one where I didn’t grab the page number.

Kimberly Hirsh @kimberlyhirsh