Deep underground, there is the Starless Sea. At the harbours along its shores are great libraries guarded by a priesthood whose members have passed hidden tests in the world above. They reach the Sea through doors painted on to walls.
Zachary Rawlins doesn’t open his door when he finds it as a small child. Years later, as a postgraduate student in Vermont, he comes across a book that tells the story of the day he didn’t open his door. Zachary is consumed by curiosity, and embarks on a quest that leads from his university library to a masked party in New York, right down to the Starless Sea. On the way, he meets a beautiful storyteller, Dorian; a mysterious woman with pink hair, Mirabel; and disquieting Allegra who, like Odin, has sacrificed an eye for the power of foresight. Allegra has seen disaster coming to this precious underworld of books, and wants to close every door to the way below to preserve it – and prevent Zachary from venturing there.
Erin Morgenstern’s second novel arrives eight years after her bestselling debut The Night Circus, and summarised like this, the plot is clear. The Starless Sea, though, is 500 pages long, and Zachary’s story intertwines with many others. Sometimes these are self-contained fairytales, sometimes snippets of other characters’ backstories, or even the accounts of nightmares written down by a sailor who folds them into stars and casts them away. Although the core of the novel is a simple story about a young man who wants to know his fate, these other strands make such a complex tapestry that the images blur and warp.
Each image is assuredly beautiful. Deep down in the hidden world is an ice statue of Fate, and tiny ships stand frozen on her dress. At the mysterious Collector’s Club, Allegra assembles the doorhandles of every door to the lower world she has dismantled, and displays them in mobiles hanging from the ceilings. On Dorian’s back is a gorgeous tattoo, the story of the Owl King. There is no logic that binds these lovely set piece tableaux. Nobody explains why the Starless Sea is honey, or how a honey sea isn’t full of dead flies. The novel reads like panel after panel of mythic illustrations: it expects a certain acceptance of unlikely images, and that’s hardly an unfamiliar mode of thought. When we look at the 16th-century tapestries of The Lady and the Unicorn, we all know the unicorn is a metaphor, not a real creature with a stable and its own supply of apples.
But this is the very opposite of the world-building logic we normally expect of fantasy writing. Terry Pratchett, if not the king then definitely the senior jester of the fantasy royal court, famously advised that if you’re going to write about flying pigs then you ought to consider the traffic disruptions. The Starless Sea refuses to do so. It demands that its readers interpret it in an older way; the way we read The Faerie Queene. It is full of symbols, but symbols denoting what never becomes clear How the reader interprets the recurring figure of the hare, or the meaning of the bees, or what the Owl King really is, is left wholly to them.
This approach can be infuriating, but usually when a well written book is infuriating, it’s because the story is yanking at a convention so deep-seated it seems fundamental to the genre. I think The Starless Sea does just that. Traditionally, fantasy fiction uses older legends and histories as its basis. Canadian writer Robin Hobb’s hugely successful Farseer series has recognisable roots in Anglo Saxon and Viking culture, as does Lord of the Rings and countless others. Game of Thrones echoes the Wars of the Roses. American Gods harvests mythologies from everywhere, and Naomi Novik drops dragons into the Napoleonic wars. The shadows of real history and extant legends in fantasy are legion, and they have become standard.
The Starless Sea rejects older stories: it makes its own. Its magic is based in the New York Public Library, in glittering hotels, and the beautiful blatant kitsch of a professional fortune teller’s house. Rather than a traditional fantasy novel, this is an artificial myth in its own right, soldered together from the girders of skyscrapers – a myth from and for the US, rather than inherited from older nations. Like any myth, it refuses to decode its own symbols. A reader might find this deliberate vagueness either uplifting or maddening, but the novel’s scope and ambition are undeniable.
• The Starless Sea is published by Harvill Secker (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Source: The Guardian