The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern’s 2012 romantic fantasy about a majestic, roving circus, was a nearly perfect book. That it came from a debut writer, and one who refused to even consider writing a sequel, made it all the more special. It was as if the book had been created in one of the very magical tents its titular circus was comprised of. So, here we are, nearly a decade letter, and Morgenstern once again emerges from relative obscurity (she barely tweets! she is not teaching in an MFA program!) with another shocker: an exceptional sophomore novel. Yes, the cursed sophomore novel, sinker of so many careers, often either bloated or underwritten or somehow both, is, in Morgenstern’s capable hands, instead both an extension of her prior success and something new and fresh. That sophomore novel is The Starless Sea, a whimsical, masterful ode to the power of stories and of the imagination.

Die-hard Morgenstern fans will see nods to her flax-golden tales, a series of online, ekphrastic shorts that she released between 2009 and 2014. These small stories, inspired by photographs by Carey Farrell, are miniature fairy tales that often suggest or reveal a wonderful world hidden right under our noses. The Night Circus also dealt with a Hogwartsian hidden world, but one that, even magically enhanced, had restricted dimensions. The titular Starless Sea, however, is huge and boundless, itself only part of a massive alternate world that’s primary purpose is to serve as a library of sorts. And it is separate from but connected to our world, accessible to only a few, which is just the kind of set-up that makes a good fantasy enticing. The promise of escape, of wonders meant for our eyes only. Morgenstern is a master of providing these thrilling morsels of magic.

Due to its arrangement, The Starless Sea is a bit more difficult to settle into than The Night Circus or similar novels like Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, Stephanie Garber’s Caraval, Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian or even Susanna Clarke’s dense but relatively straightforward classic Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. This arrangement involves the main narrative – which follows a young videogame scholar named Zachary Ezra Rawlins who himself is fated to find the starless sea and the stories beneath it – and also a book-within-a-book called “Sweet Sorrows,” which reads a bit like Morgenstern’s flax-golden tales. Sweet Sorrows is (at first) a seemingly authorless collection of fairy tales involving, among other things a pirate, a dollhouse and the son of a fortune teller. That son, however, is Zachary, which serves as the first link between the main action and “Sweet Sorrows.”

Zachary Ezra Rawlins, who is frequently referred to by his full name, is a surprisingly full protagonist for a novel that could have gotten away with letting its extraordinary settings and moods drive things. His professional study of video games makes him seem very millennial (and also hints at another of Morgenstern’s influences for The Starless Sea, video game RPGs) while his love of hot cocoa and fortune-telling family give him a bit of whimsy. Zachary meets other robust characters as he uncovers more about “Sweet Sorrows,” the Starless Sea and himself, but to Morgenstern’s credit she never lets the story slip into cynicism. So many novels of wonder and magic seem to take a perverse joy in destroying that wonder and magic or aging their characters out of it. Morgenstern gifts magic to all who are willing to believe.

It’s rare to find such a remarkable follow-up to such a remarkable debut, and as such The Starless Sea cements Morgenstern as more than a one-hit-wonder. She’s a true talent who has carved out a place for herself in a crowded marketplace with just two books. It’s difficult to describe just how indelible her work is, but what can be said is that the reader who gives herself over to The Starless Sea will find herself remembering big and small moments from the novel long after the final page has turned. Like The Night Circus before it, The Starless Sea is a singular work of extraordinary imagination, and it is destined to be a classic.

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