There are few things the literary community relishes more than the appearance of a polarizing high-profile book. Sure, any author about to release their baby into the wild will be hoping for unqualified praise from all corners, but what the lovers of literary criticism and book twitter aficionados amongst us are generally more interested in is seeing a title (intelligently) savaged and exalted in equal measure. It’s just more fun, dammit, and, ahem, furthermore, it tends to generate a more wide-ranging and interesting discussion around the title in question. With that in mind, welcome to a new series we’re calling Point/Counterpoint, in which we pit two wildly different reviews of the same book—one positive, one negative—against one another and let you decide which makes the stronger case.
Erin Morgenstern is the bestselling author of The Night Circus, which tells the story of two feuding wizards whose children fall in love. This wildly popular fantasy novel took the world by storm in 2011, and fans have been waiting to see what she would do next.
EnterThe Starless Sea, which follows Zachary Rawlins, a shy young man who quite literally finds himself in a mysterious book at his university library. The book was written before his birth, and yet, he reads an unsettling anecdote from his old childhood inside the book’s pages. He makes it his mission to get to the bottom of this magical encounter—a mission that brings him to the Starless Sea, a labyrinth that exists beneath our world and contains countless stories. But Zachary soon discovers that there’s a battle over this mystical place, and it may be in danger.
The novel that marks the return of Erin Morgenstern has been met with pretty positive reviews overall. Nancy Pate at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune calls it “extravagantly imaginative,” while Jaclyn Fulwood writes in Shelf Awareness that “the journey is nothing short of magical.” NPR’s Amal El-Mohtar says, “What did work for me, deeply and wholesomely and movingly, was the whole affect of the book, its warmth, its helpless love of storytelling and beautiful, polished fables.”
However, there were some more mixed reactions. Tor.com’s Mahvesh Murad warns readers that the plot is “heavy with symbolism, loaded with metaphor and drowned in backstories for many characters.” In The New York Times Book Review, Lyndsay Faye writes: “As a story about stories, Morgenstern’s latest contains the seeds of its own destruction: It abandons people in favor of theme.”
Today we’re looking at Matthew Adams’ review in The Times (UK), which criticizes the novel for being “peculiarly devoid of atmosphere, tension and mystery.” In the other corner, we’ve got Erica Flint’s rave review in The San Francisco Chronicle, which compares the book to “an exquisitely formed flower that provides readers with moments of satisfaction when it finally reaches full bloom.”
What do you say, reader? Are you ready to dive into The Starless Sea?
There is a pirate in the basement.
(The pirate is a metaphor but also still a person.)
“…a curious, disappointing and, above all, mundane affair that, for all its talk of magical territories, fantastic occurrences, strange mutations and obscure disruptions, is peculiarly devoid of atmosphere, tension and mystery. Almost all of this blandness can be attributed to Morgenstern’s prose, which suffers from a predilection for cliché, irritating antiquities and overemphasis: characters ‘appear out of thin air’; objects rest only ‘atop’ (never on top of) other objects … Writing of this kind prevents the reader from feeling such change, and dispels the fantasy it tries so awkwardly to generate.”
–Matthew Adams, The Times (UK)
“… a book about people who love stories, for people who love stories … has it all, and the well-read will be pleased to pick up these literary Easter eggs along the way … Morgenstern has created the ultimate ode to storytelling … Stories are layered upon stories, unfolding through the book like an exquisitely formed flower that provides readers with moments of satisfaction when it finally reaches full bloom … Morgenstern beautifully crafts an imaginary world with such vivid, delicate detail that you can’t help but feel like it truly could exist. It’s a realm that lets the mind wander, question and carry forward, often leaving the reader feeling that finishing the book will be akin to achieving one’s own hero’s quest.”
–Erica Flint, The San Francisco Chronicle