• The Good: Moody atmospheric dream of underground libraries; LGBTQ+ friendly
  • The Bad: Lack of motivation, stakes, and plot
  • The Literary: Lyrical prose in a highly unconventional structure

Graduate student Zachary Ezra Rawlins discovers a book in the library that, among other tales, tells a story from his own childhood. He follows obscure clues—a bee, a key, and a sword—to find the origin of the book, leading him to a masquerade party in New York and a hidden secret library deep in the earth. Together with fierce little Mirabel and ruggedly handsome Dorian, Zachary travels the underground labyrinth of tunnels and ballrooms and seas.

If you love books and story, and can easily relate to an introverted, near-sighted protagonist who studies video game theory, you’ll appreciate this love-letter to story-telling. Easily my favorite aspect of this novel is the unique structure. It begins with multiple stories-within-stories, flash-fiction chapters that loop back on themselves. The latter-half moves to multiple perspectives, one of which is epistolary.

I still find myself thinking about Morgenstern’s debut novel The Night Circus and it’s black and white magic. She has a talent for building a dreamlike, atmospheric mood through enchanting, even whimsical, lyrical imagery and prose, and delivers even more here. With keys, cats, books, and mystery, the world Zachary enters is basically a self-perpetuating meandering story machine full of the Moon and her lover, pirates and girls, Fate and Time, beginnings and endings.

Unfortunately, all the beautiful metaphors and similes can’t make up for lack of motivation. Zachary lets himself be carried away by the magical world. He’s more interested in the magical world than going home and he sort of wants a boyfriend, but he wanders around more than anything else, marveling at the strange realm he’s entered. The antagonist Allegra is set up well but there’s no payoff. And in the end Zachary doesn’t have to overcome or defeat anything.

Despite all the negatives, I’ll definitely read the next one. As Morgenstern herself puts it, if The Night Circus represents autumn, then the highly anticipated novel The Starless Sea is winter. I can’t wait for spring. Highly recommended for fans of stories-within-stories and lyrical language!

“I remain here because it is my job, Mister Rawlins. My calling, my duty, my raison d’etre. Why are you here?”

Because a book said I was supposed to be, Zachary thinks. Because I’m worried about going back… Because I feel more alive down here than I did up there.

“I’m here to sail the Starless Sea and breathe the haunted air,” he says.