Book Review: The Starless Sea, by Erin Morgenstern

Far beneath the surface of the earth, upon the shores of the Starless Sea, there is a labyrinthine collection of tunnels and rooms filled with stories. The entryways that lead to this sanctuary are often hidden, sometimes on forest floors, sometimes in private homes, sometimes in plain sight. But those who seek will find. Their doors have been waiting for them.

Zachary Ezra Rawlins is searching for his door, though he does not know it. He follows a silent siren song, an inexplicable knowledge that he is meant for another place. When he discovers a mysterious book in the stacks of his campus library he begins to read, entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, lost cities, and nameless acolytes. Suddenly a turn of the page brings Zachary to a story from his own childhood impossibly written in this book that is older than he is.

Goodreads

I am about to gush and swoon all over the place (and this might also be a bit stream of consciousness), so be prepared.

That summary from Goodreads does not do this book justice.

The Starless Sea is love stories, and fairy tales, and metaphors, and stories within stories, and stories about stories, and though Fate doesn’t like any of it being described this way, The Starless Sea is magic. It is truly magical.

I find it so hard to talk about books that I fall in love with. It’s so hard to put into words what these books make me feel. Because aside from the writing and the story (stories) being just lovely, The Starless Sea is a feeling. It is a feeling of glowing warmth starting in my center and radiating outward. It is the feeling I get when I have been away from loved ones for a long time and I finally get to be with them and hug them and spend time with them. It is a yearning feeling that comes from wanting magic and magical lands to be real.

The Starless Sea is one of those books that truly sucked me in and made me feel like I was there, following Zachary and Dorian and Mirabel, watching them move through the many stories they find themselves in.

And oh, but what I wouldn’t give for it all to be true, and to find a random, beautifully-painted door where a door shouldn’t be, to open that door and find myself in a Harbor on the the Starless Sea, to become an acolyte or a guardian or the Keeper herself. Loving stories like The Starless Sea and wanting them to be real is a bittersweet ache in the center of my chest. As long as people like Erin Morgenstern continue to write stories like these, I will continue to read them and pretend that they are possible, that someone somewhere is living a magical life and I’m happy for them, even if that someone isn’t me and I’m just watching from the sidelines.

Do you understand now how much I loved this book?

Morgenstern borrowed a few ideas and tidbits from other stories to write this one, and I also love those stories. I don’t know if they were meant to be Easter eggs or if they were meant to be more obvious than that, but every time I found one, I smiled.

I don’t know what else I can say to convince you to read The Starless Sea. Stories are meant to be shared and I want to share this one with everyone I know. Of all the books I’ve read and enjoyed so far this year, this one is easily at the top of my list now and I’m quite sure it will stay there. I want to start from the beginning and reread it right now (and I just finished it fifteen minutes ago).

But this is not where their story ends.
Their story is only just beginning.
And no story ever truly ends as long as it is told.

Thank you, Erin Morgenstern.

Book Review: How Long ’til Black Future Month?, by N.K. Jemisin

In these stories, Jemisin sharply examines modern society, infusing magic into the mundane, and drawing deft parallels in the fantasy realms of her imagination. Dragons and hateful spirits haunt the flooded city of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In a parallel universe, a utopian society watches our world, trying to learn from our mistakes. A black mother in the Jim Crow south must figure out how to save her daughter from a fey offering impossible promises. And in the Hugo award-nominated short story “The City Born Great,” a young street kid fights to give birth to an old metropolis’s soul.

Goodreads

Y’all, I love N.K. Jemisin (and her books, heh). I started with her Broken Earth series and immediately recommended it to everyone I know who loves fantasy. Then I read her Inheritance series, which in my mind is the tiniest bit less good than the Broken Earth series, but I still loved it.

And now I’ve *finally* read How Long ’til Black Future Month?, and she is just as good at writing short stories as she is at writing novels.

In the Introduction, Jemisin talks about why she started writing short fiction. While attending a writing workshop, she was advised to learn to write short stories. She didn’t understand the advice — she knew the short story is a completely different art form than the novel, and the pay for short stories was, at that time, “abysmal.” What finally convinced Jemisin to start writing short stories was the argument that writing those would improve her longer fiction. She didn’t know if that was true, but she decided to spend a year writing short fiction to find out. And she found out that writing short fiction *did* improve her longer-form fiction.

She says she wasn’t too good at the short story at first, but she definitely improved, because the stories in How Long ’til Black Future Month? are SO GOOD. And it’s obvious that some of the short stories in BFM were expanded on and used for her novels.

I enjoyed all of the stories in BFM, but my favorite is “The City Born Great,” and it just so happens that this story is the basis for her upcoming novel The City We Became, so I’m super excited for that. (I was already super excited, but now I’m doubly super excited, which is a lot of excitement.) I just love the idea of cities going through stages until their souls are ready to be born, and having one person chosen to represent the soul of a city and be its midwife, so to speak. I’m really looking forward to a longer version of this one.

I also loved “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters,” about the haunting of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. If there were ever a time that supernatural and mythical creatures were going to show themselves, I have no doubt that it would be directly after a natural disaster like a hurricane or a major earthquake when people are already dazed and have let their guards down.

If Jemisin’s How Long ’til Black Future Month? sounds like your kind of thing, I highly recommend it.

Book Review: A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin

A Wizard of Earthsea is the first book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle. Le Guin wrote this book after being asked by the editor of Parnassus Press to write a fantasy novel for younger readers. Le Guin had never written something for the young adult audience before, and really, when this book was published in 1968, the young adult book market was just becoming a thing.

I read AWoE as part of The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition, which includes an Introduction by Le Guin that put a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. In the Introduction, she explains why it took her so long to write all six books of the Earthsea series. She wrote the first three over the span of six years, and “confidently” started writing the fourth…and couldn’t do it. She had no idea where the story was going or why the main character was doing what she was doing. It took Le Guin 18 years to come back to the fourth book and finish it.

Feminism saved the day.

Over the span of those 18 years, feminism had “grown and flourished.” And during those 18 years, Le Guin had a sense that there was something missing from her writing that was “paralyz[ing] [her] storytelling ability.” She realized at some point that it was the absence of women at the center of her stories. “Why was I, a woman, writing almost entirely about what old men did?” She goes on to explain why that was happening and how she turned that around.

And then, of course, critics called the change of viewpoint “gender politics” and claimed it was a “betrayal of the romantic tradition of heroism.” (Bleh.)

Le Guin was undaunted.

“…not to change viewpoint would, for me, have been the betrayal. By including women fully in my story, I gained a larger understanding of what heroism is and found a true and longed-for way back into my Earthsea…”

Ursual K. Le Guin, “Introduction,” The Books of Earthsea

Le Guin goes on to talk about why the books could no longer be categorized as “for children” or “young adult” as the series progressed, and I yelled, “YES!” in my living room when I read the following quote:

“The notion that fantasy is only for the immature rises from an obstinate misunderstanding of both maturity and the imagination.”

Ursual K. Le Guin, “Introduction,” The Books of Earthsea

One of my biggest pet peeves is when people think that all fantasy is for children. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

The Introduction is four or five pages long and contains much more than what I’ve written about here, and everything in it confirms why I love Ursula K. Le Guin so very much.

And now I’ve written half a book myself and the review of AWoE hasn’t even started.

A Wizard of Earthsea introduces us to the Earthsea archipelago and to Duny/Sparrowhawk/Ged, one of the main characters throughout the Earthsea series. Duny is born on the Earthsea island of Gont. His mother died before he was one, his father is a bronzesmith, and his maternal aunt is the village witch. One day Duny hears his aunt using strange words to call her goats and decides to try it for himself…and it works.

Making those words work without understanding what they mean shows that Duny was born with innate ability, so his aunt decides to teach him what she knows (which isn’t very much). Eventually Duny is nicknamed “Sparrowhawk” for being able to summon those birds by their true name.

When Duny saves his village from raiders by summoning fog, the news of his ability travels quickly and a powerful mage (Ogion) shows up to take Duny as his apprentice. This is when Duny is given his true name…Ged.

(Illustration by Charles Vess, from The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition)

Ged is prideful. He doesn’t understand why Ogion won’t teach him things more quickly. Ged decides to leave Ogion and go to a school for mages. While he is at the school, Ged’s seemingly uncontrollable urge to prove himself leads to summoning something he cannot control. The rest of the book is about Ged’s journey to overcome his fears and to deal with the thing he has summoned.

AWoE is essentially a coming-of-age tale. Ged is a young boy who has a lot of growing up to do. He needs to get a grip on that pride (men and their pride, amirite?). He needs to learn patience. He is a typical teenager who feels the need to prove himself and who thinks he knows best. We’ve all been there (and for most of us, it’s probably best that wizardry wasn’t involved).

There is a balance to the world of Earthsea that reminds me of Taoism. When using magic, the user must keep in mind that there are things that might be possible to do, but that would disrupt the harmony of the natural world and cause serious issues. Wizards must always keep this in mind when using their power. Everything is about keeping nature and the world in balance.

Storyline aside, the edition I’m reading was illustrated by Charles Vess, and the illustrations are beautiful. Some are in color and some are in black and white, and they’re all really cool. And there is an Afterword to AWoE that is just as fantastic as the Introduction I talked about at the start of this post.

I really, REALLY enjoyed A Wizard of Earthsea, and will definitely be reading the rest of the series. I have no problem saying that if you like fantasy and/or science fiction, and you’re NOT reading Ursula K. Le Guin, you’re seriously missing out.

Book Review: Come Tumbling Down – Seanan McGuire

Come Tumbling Down | Seanan McGuire | 206 pages | Tor.com | Young Adult fiction | January 7, 2020

When Jack left Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children she was carrying the body of her deliciously deranged sister—whom she had recently murdered in a fit of righteous justice—back to their home on the Moors.

But death in their adopted world isn’t always as permanent as it is here, and when Jack is herself carried back into the school, it becomes clear that something has happened to her. Something terrible. Something of which only the maddest of scientists could conceive. Something only her friends are equipped to help her overcome.

Eleanor West’s “No Quests” rule is about to be broken.

Again.

Come Tumbling Down is the fifth novella in the Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire, and it’s just as fantastic as the first four. And it’s ANOTHER JACK AND JILL STORY. I was so excited to find that out when I started reading it.

For those of you who are not familiar with McGuire’s Wayward Children series, Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children was founded by Eleanor West to give…different…children a home when their parents couldn’t (or wouldn’t) understand the experiences they’d had in other worlds.

The children Eleanor sought for her school were, by and large, the sort whose parents wanted them swept away as quickly and quietly as possible. They had already disappeared once, only to come back…changed. So let them disappear again, with the proper paperwork in place. Let them go and hope that if they happened to come home a second time, they’d come back the way they’d been, and not the way that they’d become.

The doors into these other worlds come for the children “when [they’re] young enough to believe [they] know everything, and toss [them] out again as soon as [they’re] old enough to have doubts.” I’m not going to try to explain these worlds in detail, because I don’t think I can do it succinctly enough. It is enough to say that this is a fantasy series with magical doors that transport children to worlds in which they feel they really belong, and most times, they end up being heroes in those worlds. These are stories about finding oneself and about these children finding ways to be comfortable in their own bodies.

The reason why I was so excited to find out that this is another story about Jack and Jill is that Jack is the character I most relate to in the Wayward Children series. Jack is OCD and has a very hard time with dirt and germs, and while my issues with the same aren’t nearly as serious, they’re serious enough that I feel a kinship with Jack. I know exactly how she feels when she thinks:

Her mind–brilliant, traitorous, prone to devouring itself–did not stop fretting, but at least she was in control again. It was odd, to think of one’s own mind as the enemy. It wasn’t always. The tendency to obsession and irrational dread was matched by focus and attention to detail, both of which served her well in her work.

That part about her mind being the enemy? Bingo. Irrational thoughts and obsessions are just that–irrational. We know those thoughts aren’t logical or reasonable, but we still can’t help thinking them. It can be a real bummer (understatement). Jack also doesn’t like the idea of giving birth (nor do I). She finds the idea “abhorrent” and describes it as a “messy, dangerous process” that she wants nothing to do with. Jack and I are alike in so many ways.

Another thing I love about McGuire is her worldbuilding ability. She is so good at creating and describing worlds that I can imagine in detail. When I’m reading her books, I feel like I’m there in the story, a bystander watching everything go down.

And there is SO MUCH REPRESENTATION in this series; the characters are different races, one is asexual (but not aromantic), another is transgender, another is gay. But the characters never, ever feel like tropes or tokens. These aren’t stories ABOUT their queerness. The stories are about the experiences of these children, some of whom also happen to be queer. It’s so nice to see this kind of representation in young adult books.

I could go on and on and on about this series, but I’d really love for more people to read it for themselves. All of the books in the series are novellas, so they’re quick reads. I read the first four in the span of a few days. If you enjoy YA fiction/fantasy, and you haven’t read these, you’re missing out. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

The Wayward Children series:
1. Every Heart a Doorway
2. Down Among the Sticks and Bones
3. Beneath the Sugar Sky
4. In an Absent Dream
5. Come Tumbling Down


(Thank you to Macmillan-Tor/Forge for providing a review copy of Come Tumbling Down through NetGalley for me to read. All opinions in this review are my own.)