Review: ‘The Starless Sea’ by Erin Morganstern

This novel is a breathtaking display of exuberant lyrical prose, wondrously detailed imagery, and elaborate plotting. Interlocking tales and snippets of tales comprise this brilliant celebration of storytellers and how the times and places and characters of their art become woven, often covertly, into readers’ lives.

The purported protagonist, Vermont college student Zachary Ezra Rawlins, checks out a book called Sweet Sorrows from the library and finds within it a story from his childhood. At first, he can’t believe it, but then as he tries to find out where the book originated and how it was catalogued by the library, he discovers over time that he can’t truly believe anything.

Rawlins initially discovers that simply having the book has placed his life in danger. He’s not sure why. In fact, he may never be sure. As it turns out, there are doors everywhere that lead to an immense and seemingly infinite realm of books stored in ever-shifting below-ground castles and caverns.

One is reminded of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere tale about a hidden-away realm beneath the streets of London where the culture is quite different from everything at street level. In Morganstern’s unique world, which comes with its own mythologies and origin stories, the culture is not only different from the “real life” we know, but changes constantly like the play of moonlight on the surface of the sea.

Stories are not content to confine themselves to their original plots. Instead, they update and morph themselves not only into other stories but into the reality of the inhabitants and structures of the underground world itself. In one respect it’s chaos, but everything is tied together as though the stories themselves got together and made sure their changes meshed perfectly with the changes in other stories like the gears in a perfectly designed machine.

The stories, in fact, are all there is. They are not only the motive power and intelligence behind the underground library on the shore of the Starless Sea but impact the direction of the science and technology world that innocently exists outside the doors leading into the depths.

In defense of readers who enjoyed The Night Circus and were disappointed with The Starless Sea, Morgenstern’s new novel strays dangerously close to being a work of experimental fiction rather than a true fantasy. The plot isn’t linear and may not even exist cohesively from one chapter to the next. The ending–which works perfectly within the confines of the novel–will anger those who read through some 500 pages hoping for a resolution.

I’m content simply to experience the world Morgenstern has created in The Starless Sea and the immeasurable beauty of her storytelling. Fantasy or experimental–either way, it’s a gem.





When the muses outdo themselves: Favorite passages from books

Sometimes sentence or paragraph in a novel stops me in my tracks because it’s perfect, perfectly beautiful, dangerously apt, and it flows from word to word like birds or gods singing. Here are a few of my favorites:

  1. The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy: It was growing dark on this long southern evening, and suddenly, at the exact point her finger had indicated, the moon lifted a forehead of stunning gold above the horizon, lifted straight out of filigreed, light-intoxicated clouds that lay on the skyline in attendant veils. Behind us, the sun was setting in a simultaneous congruent withdrawal and the river turned to flame in a quiet duel of gold….The new gold of moon astonishing and ascendant, he depleted gold of sunset extinguishing itself in the long westward slide, it was the old dance of days in the Carolina marshes, the breathtaking death of days before the eyes of children, until the sun vanished, its final signature a ribbon of bullion strung across the tops of water oaks.
  2. Sunset Song in the Scots Quair trilogy by Lewis Grassic GibbonSo that was Chris and her reading and schooling, two Chrisses there were that fought for her heart and tormented her. You hated the land and the coarse speak of the folk and learning was brave and fine one day and the next you’d waken with the peewits crying across the hills, deep and deep, crying in the heart of you and the smell of the earth in your face, almost you’d cry for that, the beauty of it and the sweetness of the Scottish land and skies. You saw their faces in firelight, father’s and mother’s and the neighbours’, before the lamps lit up, tired and kind, faces dear and close to you, you wanted the words they’d known and used, forgotten in the far-off youngness of their lives, Scots words to tell to your heart, how they wrung it and held it, the toil of their days and unendingly their fight. And the next minute that passed from you, you were English, back to the English words so sharp and clean and true–for a while, for a while, till they slid so smooth from your throat you knew they could never say anything that was worth the saying at all.
  3. The Night Circus by Erin MorgensternSomeone needs to tell those tales. When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There’s magic in that. It’s in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift. Your sister may be able to see the future, but you yourself can shape it, boy. Do not forget that… there are many kinds of magic, after all.
  4. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz ZafónEvery book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens. And also this: Once, in my father’s bookshop, I heard a regular customer say that few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memory to which, sooner or later—no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover, or how much we learn or forget—we will return.
  5. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy: They heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them and they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing.

You probably have some favorite lines as well, lines you might even copy on to scraps of paper to be hidden away in your wallet or purse for those moment when you need to prove again to yourself that there is still hope for the world.


Top Five Magical Realism Books at Amazon

If you’ve heard about magical realism, but haven’t knowingly sampled it yet, the top sellers on Amazon are a wonderful place to start.

  1. TNightCircushe Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, September 2011.  I read this as soon as it came out and it became one of my favorite books. It edged out The Tiger’s Wife as that year’s favorites as I wrote in this post.  The fact that it’s still number one, shows it has staying power and that people continue to find it. It has a long list of starred reviews, telling me the critics also like it. A circus shows up out of nowhere, displays breathtaking feats of real magic as though they are mere illusions, and then disappears. What a joy to read.
  2. mermaidsisterThe Mermaid’s Sister, by Carrie Anne Noble, March 2015. This book is the 2014 Winner of Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award for Young Adult Fiction. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m impressed with the general tone of the reviews and what I can see via the book’s “Look Inside” feature. The cover is delightful and the publisher’s opening words about the story are tempting: “There is no cure for being who you truly are…In a cottage high atop Llanfair Mountain, sixteen-year-old Clara lives with her sister, Maren, and guardian Auntie. By day, they gather herbs for Auntie’s healing potions. By night, Auntie spins tales of faraway lands and wicked fairies. Clara’s favorite story tells of three orphan infants—Clara, who was brought to Auntie by a stork; Maren, who arrived in a seashell; and their best friend, O’Neill, who was found beneath an apple tree.”
  3. windHear the Wind Sing and Pinball, by Haruki Murakami are two novels issued in this one volume set for release next month. They haven’t previously been available in English. According to the publisher, “These powerful, at times surreal, works about two young men coming of age—the unnamed narrator and his friend the Rat—are stories of loneliness, obsession, and eroticism. They bear all the hallmarks of Murakami’s later books, and form the first two-thirds, with A Wild Sheep Chase, of the trilogy of the Rat.” I am tempted by this book, but more tempted by the book sitting in position number five.
  4. godhelpGod Help the Child, by Toni Morrison, April 2015. I have read most of Morrison’s work and have this book on order.  While the cover is disappointing, the reviews are positive. The publisher describes the book this way: “At the center: a young woman who calls herself Bride, whose stunning blue-black skin is only one element of her beauty, her boldness and confidence, her success in life, but which caused her light-skinned mother to deny her even the simplest forms of love. There is Booker, the man Bride loves, and loses to anger. Rain, the mysterious white child with whom she crosses paths. And finally, Bride’s mother herself, Sweetness, who takes a lifetime to come to understand that ‘what you do to children matters. And they might never forget.’”  I’ll stipulate that so far, I’ve only read what I can see via “look inside,” but based on that, I think it will be difficult for any author in 2015 to match the power of this story.
  5. penumbraMr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (audio version), by Robin Sloan, October 2012. I read this book when it came out and found the story and characters strange and compelling. I don’t care for the cover but, like Morrsion’s book, the reviews are positive. And, what can be more tempting for an author than a publisher’s description that (1) starts out like this: “A gleeful and exhilarating tale of global conspiracy, complex code-breaking, high-tech data visualization, young love, rollicking adventure, and the secret to eternal life—mostly set in a hole-in-the-wall San Francisco bookstore” and (2) begins like this: “Lost in the shadows of the shelves, I almost fall off the ladder. I am exactly halfway up. The floor of the bookstore is far below me, the surface of a planet I’ve left far behind. The tops of the shelves loom high above, and it’s dark up there–the books are packed in close, and they don’t let any light through. The air might be thinner, too. I think I see a bat.” I hope the world will always have bookstores that can be described this way. The book kept my attention, but not enough to re-read it as I have The Night Circus.

There’s a lot to like here if you’re of a mind to sample the latest magical realism. Then, stop by Malcolm’s Round Table on July 29 when I’ll be taking part in a magical realism blog hop.


KIndle cover 200x300(1)Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the magical realism novella set in the Jim Crow era of the Florida Panhandle, “Conjure Woman’s Cat”

See the Indie View interview about how I write and why I wrote this book.

Great Fiction: Location, Location, Location

These days, most people say they like character-driven novels. As Barbra Streisand sang years ago, “People who need people, Are the luckiest people in the world.” We want to read about people, pretend to be them, laugh at them, hate them, learn from them and, if nothing else, see what they’ll do next.

nixNonetheless, location can make or break a novel. Picture this:

  • The Night Circus set in the day time or, worse yet, Dubuque.
  • The Prince of Tides without the tides or, worse yet, without the the lush bays and swamps an estuaries of the South Carolina coast. (“It was growing dark on this long southern evening, and suddenly, at the exact point her finger had indicated, the moon lifted a forehead of stunning gold above the horizon, lifted straight out of filigreed, light-intoxicated clouds that lay on the skyline in attendant veils.”)
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell set in modern times or, worse yet, within the 1950s neighborhood of Happy Days or the early 1960s city ambiance of American Graffiti. (“Where does the wind come from that blows upon your face, that fans the pages of your book? Where the harum-scarum magic of small wild creatures meets the magic of Man, where the language of the wind and the rain and the trees can be understood, there we will find the Raven King.”)
  • All the Pretty Horses moved from Texas onto a Star Wars planet or, worse yet,  the Catskill Mountains.

Setting is more than a generic backdrop for the action

In his essay, “Setting as Character,” Crawford Kilian wrote, “Whether it’s Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920s Long Island or Tolkien’s Shire, the setting really is a kind of character in the story. Geographically and socially, the setting shapes the other characters, making some actions inevitable and others impossible.” The novels I listed above not only didn’t happen somewhere else, they couldn’t.

ozmapOn a similar note, a recent post on ProActive Writer, explored the importance of settings with the idea that “ignoring setting, or even giving it only a passing consideration, will lead to an unconvincing story.” The post views setting as the framework or the skeleton that holds up your plot and characters. Some authors build worlds for their novels before writing the novels; others let the worlds evolve while they write their stories. Either way, the worlds—real or imagined—must be convincing, they must fit the story like a warm mitten on a winter evening.

My Location Settings

I say all this as a way of introducing a series of posts on my Sun Singer’s Travels blog about the location settings in my novels. These easy-to-read posts explain each setting, show or describe what happened there in the novel, and explain why I chose the setting.

My approach to settings is organic and intuitive. By that I mean that I don’t make fiction-class lists of the attributes of the settings I want to use. No literary theory here; just places and reasons why I liked them. So far, the series has three installments:

Future posts will look at the world of a city in the Midwest, an aircraft carrier, a bridge over a wild river, and a sailor town. Stop by and see what you think. Whether you agree or disagree with my rationale, perhaps these posts will help you choose the best possible settings for your short stories and novels.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasy novels.

Read it now on your Kindle
Read it now on your Kindle

Getting Started in Fantasy Reading


“Fantasy: A general term for any kind of fictional work that is not primarily devoted to a realistic representation of the known world. This category includes several literary genres describing imagined worlds in which magical powers and other impossibilities are accepted.” – The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms

When I tell people I write contemporary fantasy, sometimes they say, “wow, cool” and sometimes they say, “I read the Chronicles of Narnia when I was little, but know little about the genre.”

There are so many types, styles, flavors an sub-genres in fantasy, the wealth of material out there to read is often hard to explain to those wanting to know more. I agree with Terry Pratchett when he says that  “Fantasy is an exercise bicycle for the mind. It might not take you anywhere, but it tones up the muscles that can. Of course, I could be wrong.” However, here are a few links and ideas that are a bit more specific.

Wikipedia has a decent article on fantasy that works as a starting point. (Click on the graphic to read it.) The main article branches off into a series of additional links for sub-genres, books, and authors.

When people want to know more about the types of fantasies, I often send them to sites like Focus on Fantasy for a quick overview and Top 50 SciFi & Fantasy Novels blogs where they can sample some of the viewpoints and commentary out there.

bestfantasyI like Best Fantasy Books because it introduces newcomers to fantasy by listing books in various groupings and then, for each book, showing others that are similar to it. If you look at this site, you’ll find stand-alone books, books in a series, influential books, and a cool list called “Fantasy That Blows Your Mind.”

To keep up with recent books and new titles, you can subscribe to Amazon’s list via RSS. This puts it on your browser where you can click on it easily and see the names of the titles. You’ll find recent fantasy book reviews on Fantasy Book Critic. This site also displays an excellent blogroll that will send you off on an exploration of fantasy blogs, most of which links you to more blogs.

earthseaOnce you find a favorite author and genre, s/he will often be another source via comments, interviews and viewpoints in a personal blog or web site.  Fantasy is so diverse, that it’s really hard to nail it down and say that any one book of series is representative of the genre. Personally, I like contemporary fantasy the best because it overlaps are known world as J. K. Rowling did with her Harry Potter series. Rowling, though, is apples and oranges different from, say, Tolkien, or Erin Morgenstern’s recent The Night Circus or Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic Earthsea series.

Kindle, Nook and other e-readers make it easy to sample a variety of fantasy books at a lower cost before adding your newly discovered favorites to your bookshelf in hardcover or paperback. You can even find some of the older fantasies available on Project Gutenberg and other sites as free downloads. Happy exploring!


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasy, including “The Sun Singer,” “Sarabande,” and the upcoming “The Seeker” (March 2013).


My 2011 Favorite: ‘The Night Circus’ edges out ‘The Tiger’s Wife’

In April, I began my book review of The Tiger’s Wife with the following: Gather around, my friends, and I will tell you the story of the man who could never die, who, some say, still walks the streets of our village at night, and then—if most of you are still awake—I’ll tell you the story of the tiger Shere Khan whose eyes burn brightly in the night when he prowls near campfires like this looking for his wife.

As a storyteller, I’m drawn to stories that sparkle with probabilities, magic, a sense of mystery, and a raw potential for being real beneath the guise of the novelist’s art. In April, I didn’t think anyone would do better in 2011 than Téa Obreht. Then I started seeing the hype for Erin Morgenstern’s novel of fantasy and magical realism The Night Circus. Hype bothers me because it smacks of money-fed, well-oiled machines churning out literary propaganda for those favored authors who get the rare treatment of a real, book-selling campaign. As a storyteller and author, I am jealous of those authors and that alone kicks in a nasty attitude of bias against whatever it is they are selling.

Yet, when it came to The Tiger’s Wife and The Night Circus, my intuition told me I was going to like these books in spite of my bias and in spite of the fact that I really wanted my 2011 favorite to come from a small press. Perhaps The Night Circus edged out The Tiger’s Wife because I finished reading it later in the year. Or perhaps it was because the magic of two dueling magicians in the Le Cirque des Rêves in Morgenstern’s novel reminded me of the dueling magicians in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, my favorite novel in 2004.

Complete Worlds

Both Susanna Clarke and Erin Morgenstern paint rich pictures of complete worlds, worlds where there is room to experience the magic in depth and to believe that it fits there and really did happen or could happen. Booklist saw this complete world in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell in its starred review: The brilliance of the novel lies in how Clarke so completely and believably creates a world within a world: the “outside” world being early-nineteenth-century England, as Napoleon the eagle looms over all of Europe; the “inner” world being the community of English magicians.

Likewise, Library Journal saw an equally complete world in Morgenstern’s novel this year: To enter the black-and-white-striped tents of Le Cirque des Rêves is to enter a world where objects really do turn into birds and people really do disappear…Debut novelist Morgenstern has written a 19th-century flight of fancy that is, nevertheless, completely believable. The smells, textures, sounds, and sights are almost palpable. A literary “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride,” this read is completely magical.

Mysterious Plot

In The Night Circus, two young illusionists, Celia and Marco, are magically bound by their mentors into an endless competition without rules or time limits that is destined to play itself out in a mysterious circus of dreams that arrives in towns with no advance notice and is only open from sunset to dawn. Celia and Marco use real magic, but because the public doesn’t believe in such things, they pretend to be illusionists.

Neither magician knows when or how his or her illusions will be judged or when or how a winner will be declared, but only that they are not allowed to tell the outside world about the competition. In fact, the competition itself influences how the circus is maintained, what the patrons see or think they see, and creates a rather dream-like realm where it’s difficult for readers and circus visitors to know where the fantasy of it all begins and ends.

While most of the reader reviews for The Night Circus are positive (three to five stars), as of today, the novel’s 64 one-and-two-star reviewers saw no plot in the book at all. Generally, they found the book to be boring and pointless. One way or the other, these reviewers’ expectations were not met. I suspect they were looking for an overt storyline more like Harry Potter’s battles with the evil Voldemort throughout J. K. Rowling’s popular series. Rowling has also created a very complete world, yet what happens in it happens faster and with more splash and consequence and that garners more happy readers.

Storytelling Itself

Near the end of The Night Circus, one of the two devious mentors tells a circus performer about the imporance of stories themselves and how they connect writer and reader in intersting ways and spin out consequences outside the control of either of them:

Someone needs to tell those tales. When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There’s magic in that. It’s in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift. Your sister may be able to see the future, but you yourself can shape it, boy. Do not forget that…there are many kinds of magic, after all.

I love blurring reality and fiction together in my writing. My wont to do this, as a trickster and storyteller, led me to enjoy reading both The Tiger’s Wife and The Night Circus. Both Téa Obreht and Erin Morgenstern have created believable worlds with strong characters that can move and drive readers. Even though I have always loved tigers and have always disliked circuses, Le Cirque des Rêves has manged nonetheless to connect with my blood and self and purpose.

Coming Soon: a review of Mister Blue by Jacques Poulin, to be released later this month by archipelago books. Published in 1989 as Le Vieux Chagrin, the novel first appeared in English in 1993.

You May Also Like: Yesterday, I announced an end-of-the-year book give-away challenge for my contemporary fantasy Sarabande. If you enter, you might just win a free copy.