Book Review

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

Publisher: Doubleday
Genre: Fantasy Fiction
Format: Hardback
Pages: 498
Buy Local
My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

As with all good things, this story begins with a book. Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a mildly enthusiastic college student, is wandering through the shelves of his university library. He is searching, although he does not know what for, when he happens upon a book which is more than it seems. The book is old, unmarked and deliciously mysterious. Once Zachary begins to read, he cannot stop, because in its pages Zachary finds stories of pirates, and gatekeepers, and finally, himself.

The book describes the young man as he was in his childhood. It is a chronicle of a moment of magic when Zachary was offered passage into another world—a moment which he chose not to seize. The promise of the book is that this moment has not been lost, only postponed. It is this promise that propels Zachary through a painted doorway into a world full of wonder, a world in which a Starless Sea exists beneath the earth, on whose shores exist all the stories that ever were and that will ever be.

Thoughts

The Starless Sea is long-form love letter to books. It is collection of stories within stories, all neatly woven together with the thread of the main narrative, which the reader learns is yet another story in another book. There is some not so subtle subtext here concerning the nature of “Story,” and what that means to those who are passionate about it. In one of my favorite tangents, those who wish to protect and keep the treasures of the Starless Sea must pass a test in which they relate a story to a single person. Based on their performance they are deemed either worthy or not. This is an enticing prospect, and a call-to-arms of those (such as myself) that fancy themselves storytellers. Morgenstern blatantly states, if you do not love books, this one is not for you.

The powerful imagery immerses the reader in a magical reality outside of the mundane world. From the masquerade party where the attendees must dress as literary characters, to the underground quarters where any food you wish appears by means of an enchanted dumbwaiter, each scenario is finely crafted to enchant the lover of the unusual and fantastic. While there is little explanation as to the why of events, the richness that they offer renders this unnecessary. Why explain the realm of magic? The prose is lovely, full of metaphor, and unabashedly romantic.

For me, this books speaks with the voice of a kindred spirit. If the Reveurs of The Night Circus (Morgenstern’s first book) were my tribe, then this book is our destination. Were we all to go on a voyage, I am sure that we would set sail together on the Starless Sea. Of course, we would be traveling together on a boat crafted from heartwood of the Ancient Forest, with sails of silk woven from the hair of naiads and perfumed with the dew of night-blooming flowers. If this sounds like exactly the type of adventure that you would like to go on—one full of lovers, villains, and unlikely heroes—then this is the book for you. I would highly recommend it devotees of fantasy and bibliophiles alike. Curl up with a nice cup of tea and The Starless Sea and be prepare to be transported into a dream!

Harry Potter Books Ranked

I’m sure most, if not all of us, are familiar with the Harry Potter series. They have taken the world by storm ever since Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone was published in 1997. It’s safe to say even if you love them all, there are probably some you love more than the others. Here, I have compiled my ranking of the novels ending with my all-time favorite. (Warning: spoilers ahead!)


7. The Chamber of Secrets. Starting the list at number seven is The Chamber of Secrets. I put this here because although it contains a multitude of catalysts for the rest of the series, I just don’t find myself drawn to it as much as I am to the others. It is chalked full of adventure and clues which I love, but I can’t see myself choosing it off the shelf first.


6. The Philosophers Stone (AKA The Sorcerers Stone). Next we have The Philosophers Stone, which, for obvious reasons, is a classic. This is the first in the series and the Harry Potter world would be nothing without it. There is something magical about meeting all the characters for the first time and learning about magic with them. That being said, the other books have more dynamic qualities surrounding the characters—and even Rowling’s writing—and so due to that, The Philosopher’s Stone comes in at number six on the list.


5. The Prisoner of Azkaban. The fifth novel on the list gives us further insight into the creatures of the Wizarding World. I love the symbolism of the patronus and it’s contrast with the dementors, and of course, meeting Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black for the first time. This book does follow the traditional pattern of time that I grew to love in the first two, but the excitement of switching that pattern up in the other novels ranks this one just a tad lower on my list.


4. The Half-Blood Prince. Now I know the order of this list is a little chaotic, but stay with me. The Half-Blood Prince is a staple in the series, with the discovery of the first horcrux and of course the death of Dumbledore. A lot happens in this book to set up the last one in the series, but, I placed it here on the list because I feel it has just a little less excitement and character growth than the following three books on the list. It is still full of enchantment and moves the plot effortlessly, however, I find myself gravitating towards these next three novels the most.


3. The Goblet of Fire. The next book on my list is a fan favorite. Almost everyone I know favors this book and I can see why. The Goblet of Fire is the fourth book in the series and at this point, most of the readers are in a routine where Harry goes to Hogwarts and something out of the ordinary happens throughout the school year. This book switches up the routine with the Tri-Wizard Tournament, which adds a new and exciting element to the traditional pace of the story. It is also the catalyst for the next three novels with the return of Voldemort and the first “real” death of the series (RIP Cedric Diggory). Overall, this book is full of adventure and excitement, making it a very fun read and great addition to the series.

2. The Order of the Phoenix. My second all-time favorite Harry Potter book tends to be a bit controversial, but there’s a few reasons why The Order of the Phoenix has always been one of my favorites. First, my favorite relationship throughout the novels is Sirius Black and Harry Potter’s. It’s the first time that Harry has a father figure and feels truly happy, and I love seeing that development between the third and fifth book. That being said, this makes his death in this novel all the more emotional. The first time I read it, it was entirely unexpected and 100% made me cry, making it very memorable for me. I also strongly dislike Umbridge, so a lot of different emotions came out of this—and I think that is the marking of a good book.


1. The Deathly Hallows. It may seem cliché for the last book in a series to be my number one pick, but in my opinion this novel ends the series perfectly and shows the most growth in all of the characters. Throughout the series, most of the audience grew with both the characters and Rowling. We saw them find their voices as she found hers. Every character was their most dynamic in this novel and it was heartwarming to experience. Even Neville Longbottom came out of his shell, which I’m sure we were all waiting for. It has emotional deaths, suspense, and a satisfying end with a look at the future. I don’t think the series could have ended any better.


This list was incredibly hard to make, I mean how do you rank literary genius? However, I went with my gut and thought about the novels I re-read constantly and am generally drawn to, and thus this list of rankings emerged. Feel free to comment your list and let us know what you think! If you’re interesting in purchasing any of these, you can find them all on Changing Hands’ website here.

7 Magical Reads for Harry Potter Fans

Break out the cake, Dobby—it’s Harry Potter’s 39th birthday today! To celebrate, the girls in my house have been doing a Harry Potter book club, and it has been, in a word, fantastic. But we all know that eventually we will have to read Rowling’s last, “All was well,” at which point we will turn to these seven magical reads.


Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is perfect for any fan of fast-paced and beautifully written fantasy. When our Editor-In-Chief lent me this book (which, incredibly, was originally a draft for NaNoWriMo), I had no idea how much I would enjoy escaping into the world of Celia and Marco in Le Cirque des Rêves. Its powerful imagery and sorcery are reminiscent of the Time-Turner complications with magic that Harry Potter encounters in his third year.


For fans of the later and darker Harry Potter books, The Red Queen is an explosive start to a now-famous young adult series that satisfies readers who enjoy court intrigue, unsteady relationships, and supernatural violence. A powerful protagonist, a glitteringly gory setting, and the swiftly changing loyalties and truths in the narrative make this book hard to read without immediately picking up the next of the series.


Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted follows Ella of Frell in her quest to break her curse of obedience. This is potentially one of my favorite stand-alone fantasy novels, perhaps because it combines the complications of magic that resonate in the later parts of the Harry Potter series (particularly with Harry’s discoveries about prophecies, curses, and destinies) with the simplicity of action and strength of character that Harry shows from the beginning.


For fantasy readers who find themselves somewhat disappointed that dragons are only featured in a few (key, but brief) scenes of J. K. Rowling’s series, turn to Jessica Day George’s Dragon Slippers trilogy that follows Creel in her enchanting journey through a fantasy full of delightfully personable dragons.


Readers who loved Harry Potter as “the Chosen One” will enjoy Jennifer A. Nielsen’s The False Prince, where an orphan thief named Sage confronts his identity and potential in a fantasy kingdom. Nielsen’s Ascendance Trilogy deals with many of the same themes found in Harry Potter’s encounters with navigating fame and accepting responsibility.


Gwendolyn Clare’s Ink, Iron, and Glass builds an engaging fantasy world of scriptology where Elsa learns to navigate reality while understanding the power of the written word. Her realizations about truth mirror Harry’s encounters with Umbridge’s lesson, “I must not tell lies,” in his fifth year, as well as his learning how to sift fact from fiction in Rita Skeeter’s Dumbledore biography in the seventh book. Clare’s book is perfect for Potter fans!


Last but not least, Brandon Mull’s Five Kingdoms series has perfect action scenes for those readers who loved the various encounters that Harry and his friends had with magical creatures—including trolls and spiders. Sky Raiders is full of Cole’s adventures that are enthralling like Harry’s, and there are four more books to enjoy in the series!


A Thousand Lives: How Books Connect Us to Our World and Beyond

As readers, we live double lives—the first as individuals who exist within the confines of reality, the second as incessant travelers. 

My library, ever-growing and changing through the years, has taken me across different universes. From large-scale battles between humans and High Fae, to adventures with sword-bearing demigods, to life-altering cab rides with a driver carrying messages. The destinations and layovers are endless, yet the vehicle remains the same: books.

Fantasy writer George R.R. Martin once explained, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies…The man who never reads lives only one.” But books do more than connect us to other fictional lives. They also connect us to our own lives in the real world.

Today, I’d like to share just a few small—but powerful—ways in which books have personally connected me to the world.

Exchanges

From lending out well-loved copies of Harry Potter in exchange for Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, to borrowing a roommate’s graphic novel collection of The Last Airbender in exchange for Brandon Sanderson’s original Mistborn trilogy, book exchanges have strengthened my relationships in incredible ways. In fact, I like to think that my roommate became a close confidant largely because of our shared evenings filled with animated book discussions.

Recently, I participated in an online book exchange that I stumbled upon on Instagram. I sat with a close friend of mine over frozen yogurt and scattered stationary as we wrote letters to our respective recipients. The experience was a firm reminder of how book reading can enrich existing friendships, as well as provide hope for a new one that is waiting to form.

Reminders of Strength

As a lover of literature, books have been more than a way to pass the time—they have smoothed things over for me both in turbulent times and in the chaos of travel; I imagine this rings true for all of you self-proclaimed book worms. 

Traveling has been embedded in my identity the very moment I stuffed my belongings into a bright red suitcase seven years ago. When my family and I left my small Philippine hometown to pursue a better life in the United States, the very act of traveling suddenly took the connotation of hard goodbyes and painful memories.

What helped me during the moving process itself was what came inside that bright red suitcase. Stuffed in its main compartment were bits from home: my grandmother’s rosary, printed photos from my childhood, pressed flowers from our home garden. And in the front pocket, situated there entirely for accessibility, was my copy of A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.

Mariam and Laia’s story has always inspired me, but right then, it was different. It was a more immersive experience; I took all of my anxiety and dismay and allowed them to suspend momentarily. Instead, I dove deep into a story of turmoil paired with healing. As I folded myself into the uncomfortable airplane seat, I was able to draw irrevocable strength from the characters’ experiences of loss, pain, and ultimately, powerful recovery.

Sources of Comfort

Whenever I set out on a journey, I always ensure at least one thing makes it onto my agenda: a trip to a new bookstore.

My trip to San Francisco comes to mind most readily. As I explored City Lights Bookstore, I felt a keen and deep sense of belonging upon seeing titles that promised paths to different universes—titles that allowed me to brave the unfamiliar and terrifying in more accessible (yet still exhilarating) ways. In books, I found the stepping stones I needed towards courage.

So, although traveling—especially when it entails abandoning the familiar—is never a comforting experience, books have given me an avenue out of the uncertainty and discomfort: a way to ground myself in familiarity for when I inevitably travel again.

***

Through books, I have seen places of pure fantasy come to life; I have learned new ways to make closer bonds out of my friendships, to look at wrenching pain as a story of redemption, and to find comfort even in the most frightening places.

In reading, we get to live the only way we should: fully, completely, and—if we’re lucky—a thousand times.


Guest blog post courtesy of Arni Dizon.

8 Mysterious and Fantastical Island Novels

Are you stuck indoors avoiding the summer heat? Praying that your air conditioning survives the next couple of months? If you’re like us in the Valley of the Sun, you are ready to escape the desert sun trapping you inside the house. Join us as we let our imaginations carry us far from the Sonoran Desert, over wavy ocean waters, and into some mysterious and fantastical islands with excitement and danger lurking around every corner.


And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie. Back in the late 1930s, a mysterious writer lures eight strangers to his island by sending personal letters making tempting offers like a job interview or a summer vacation. When the guests arrive, a butler and housekeeper explain that their hosts, married couple Mr. and Mrs. Owens, have left a set of instructions for each stranger to complete before their arrival. The next morning, the guests begin to disappear one at a time—and the murder accusations begin flying.


The Magus – John Fowles. Bored by his teaching position in England, young Oxford graduate Nicholas Urfe decides to teach on a remote Greek island. Here, he meets local millionaire Maurice Conchis. What first looks like a promising friendship quickly devolves into a dangerous game that leaves Nicholas questioning the difference between reality and deception.


Snake Ropes – Jess Richards. On an island off the coast of Scotland, a mysterious building stands called Thrashing House. The novel is narrated by two girls, Mary and Morgan, who both come from broken families. After the young boys on the island start to disappear unexpectedly, Mary and Morgan must track down a lost three-year-old son with the help of magic. At the heart of the story, the girls confront trauma and healing in a fantastical manner.


Shutter Island – Dennis Lehane. Shutter Island is home to the secluded Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. When one of the high-security patients, murderess Rachel Solando, escapes from her cell, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels and his partner, Chuck Aule, are called in to crack a code and solve the mystery of the missing patient. This psychological thriller is sure to keep you at the edge of your seat, but be careful—not everything is as it seems.


From the Mouth of the Whale – Sjón. It’s 1635 and Icelandic Jónas Pálmason has been banished to an island for blasphemy. Stuck in exile, Jónas recalls an exorcism, local massacre of innocent whalers, and mythical marvels—like bezoar, a magical stone with healing powers. This lyrical text blends science and magic to form a strange sort of beauty.


The Island of Dr. Moreau – H.G. Wells. Once cast aside for its terrifying depiction of scientific possibilities, this 1896 science fiction novel has since inspired several movies and is now a successful classic English novel. Between the shipwreck, abandonment, humanoid creatures, and jungle chase, this creepy novel is sure to feed your need for adventure and the grotesque.


The People in the Trees – Hanya Yanagihara. Anthropologist Paul Tallent and doctor Norton Perina travel to a remote Micronesian island to find “The Dreamers,” a tribe of islanders who enjoy mysteriously longer lives than those in the outside world. Perina believes their power stems from a rare turtle living on the tribe’s land, and, tempted by the promise of longevity, steals a turtle for research. When he proves the turtle’s magical properties to the scientific community, Perina believes he has finally found success. But he quickly learns otherwise.


Jurassic Park – Michael Crichton. Scientists have discovered a method for cloning dinosaur DNA. This gives billionaire John Hammond the perfect opportunity to open Jurassic Park, an island dinosaur amusement park. When paleontologist Alan Grant and paleobotanist student Ellie Sattler are invited to a weekend visit to the island, they are met with a technological difficulty and biological nightmare. After you’re done reading the book, you can blast the A.C. while you stream the famous blockbuster film!