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FoE Book Club > The Starless Sea: Book 1, Sweet Sorrows

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message 1: by Sheri (new)

Sheri | 833 comments Mod
This is the discussion thread for Book 1, Sweet Sorrows. I'm going to ask a few specific questions, but don't feel like you have to answer them all, or only answer questions. Feel free to give any thoughts about this section, or ask questions of your own.

In this section Zacharay finds a mysterious book in the library, and finds himself in it. Why do you think this captured him so much? What would your reaction be, in a similar situation?

Zachary found a mysterious door when he was younger. Why do you think he didn't try the door then, but was so willing to follow the mystery of the book?

Any thoughts so far as to what the Bey, Key, and Sword stand for?

During the discussion group that Zachary leads, the nature of story is discussed. How does this relate to what Zachary has read so far in Sweet Sorrows, and the nature of reading this kind of story inside a novel?

What did you think of the stories of Sweet Sorrows being woven into the overall narrative? Was it confusing? Helpful? Immersive?

Each of Zachary's PoV sections starts out ZACHARY EZRA RAWLINS, in bold and all caps. Is this significant? What does it do for the narrative? Did the different ways each type of section was presented help keep the sections distinct?

What do we get from the party scene? How did the stories he was told there relate to the overall story narrative?

How does Dorian relate to the narrative so far? Does he seem trustworthy?

In what ways do the actions in the book so far mirror narrative in video games? What sort of connections do you see between novels and video games and theatre, or other kinds of story telling?

How does Ezra's mother's talents relate to the overall theme of types of storytelling?

Any other thoughts?


message 2: by Megan (new)

Megan | 236 comments Thanks, Sheri, for the great questions!

1. I think that the book arrived at just the right time in Zachary's life - he's grown up to be his own person, but still searching for his place in the world, so he's open to exploring things that he might not be at other points in his life. So by chance or design, the mysterious book is right there in front of him when he's most open to seeing what it holds.

2. Zachary was at a different point in his life when he saw the painted door - many of us were more cautious when we were younger, and I think Zachary was like many kids who (for better or worse) only know the life they've had and don't want to think about changing anything. He's lived enough by the time the book shows up to be more open to possibilities.

3. I know it's a typo, but it would be amazing if every time bees are mentioned in the book, it was really Queen Bey. :) Seriously, though - I thought the bees were because the acolytes and guardians collect books like bees collect pollen, and use the knowledge to build and guide their world like bees create honeycombs and honey. The key because the secrecy that keeps outsiders from knowing about the society and keeps its secrets inside, and the sword because knowledge is its own kind of weapon that can be used for both offense and defense.

4. The discussion group was probably where I realized how meta meta this was going to be - it was like a book club talking about the book in the book while the story was still unfolding. It laid out what the author was going for, with having the multidimensional storytelling of a video game in the form of a static book by letting the characters talk about how the medium defines and is defined by the story and how to get past that. They said it way better, of course. :)

5. I loved the way the book wove all of the threads together from Zachary's experiences as he lived them, Sweet Sorrows, and the mythology as conveyed by other characters - it is the closest I've come in book form to how my mind works! As my IRL book club prepares to talk about this one, I've talked to some of the other members who are apparently more linear in their thinking, and they are having as hard a time following this one as I had with some of the more traditionally structured books we've read recently. I loved how the book follows the trail of an idea or theme to let the story unfold rather than trying to form events into a more traditional chronology, but I can totally see how it could be confusing to people whose minds work more like a linear timeline.

6. I loved the labeling of Zachary's sections - I took it as a callback to the many older children's/YA books that use some version of that structure, and on a more practical level it helped to set the expectation for each section to know up front if it would be Zachary's POV or something else. For me it brought the same feeling here that it did in those other books - it establishes that the author knows they're telling a Story about a Character - not just pretending the book is some omniscient means of events chronicling themselves - so I suspect that might be why the author chose to use it intentionally.

7. The party scene was Zachary's "coming out" into the world beyond the limited bubble of the university that we've seen him in so far, and it drew on everything from the Labyrinth snow globe ballroom to the party at the beginning of the Nutcracker to establish that this is THAT kind of story, and it knows it. Since this a story about stories, it also introduces the media of observation and conversation as storytelling methods, and it starts to make it more obvious that we're going to be hearing multiple versions of events and concepts as the story unfolds.

8. At this point, I wasn't sure what Dorian's role was going to be. Based on the obvious implications of his name, I didn't think he was going to turn out to be trustworthy. I won't say much more now, since I presume we will be revisiting him in later discussions, but I did not, at this point, think he was going to be as central to the story as he ended up being.

9. I think I mentioned in another thread that I really wish I were more familiar with video games. I was super into Myst and its sequels back in the day, as I suspect this author was as well, but I'm sure I missed many specific references to more recent games. The matchup of story and medium is so central to this story, and the previously mentioned discussion group really sets the scene for that in bringing up so many media - but (slight spoiler), to me one of the main takeaways of the book is that technology and creativity will always find new media through which to tell stories that will bring them to life and add more dimensions - but the underlying stories are always there regardless of how they are told.

10. Zachary's mother is a storyteller through the medium of a type of performance - her gift is prediction, but also the talent of how she presents her insights and predictions to her customers. So really, he's staying in the family business.

My Question: I'm probably going to keep asking this, so don't feel like you have to make an exhaustive list right now - but what were your favorite homages/references/shoutouts to other stories in this section? Anything you want to read/watch/play/experience again or for the first time based on this story?


message 3: by Sarah (new)

Sarah Pace (space1138) | 127 comments When I started this, I'd forgotten just how engrossing Morgenstern's prose is. She really does have a gift for establishing a lush, dreamy space through her descriptions.

The book - I think the book was meant to find Zachary, in that time, and in that place. As much as the Harbor is a living organism, I think the book is too, seeking and attaching itself to it's subject/intended owner at just the right time, in much the same way that The One Ring intentionally sought its owners in Lord of the Rings. I did really enjoy having Sweet Sorrows interwoven into the narrative, once I figured out what was going on. It was a really beautiful way to tell the story on such a deeply thematic level.

The door - kids come in two types: those who are drawn to explore outside of the established boundaries (for better or worse), and those who are more logical and uneasy about opening and entering a strange and mysterious door that shouldn't be there. Kid Zachary seems to be using is brain at this point, whereas Adult Zachary is in a place where he's open to being drawn by his heart.

Gaming callouts- Myst is quietly my #1 fandom, without a question. I'm planning to replay all the games again this spring (in preparation for the new one next summer), and I am absolutely craving a re-read of the books. Its a very natural tie-in from one indescribably immersive world to another. And it's so rarely referenced in popular culture that I loved the subtle nods to it!!!!

Okay, so I need to get this out of my system. As a university librarian, this first section drove me absolutely batty. The scenes surrounding Zachary finding the book were so far off from how a library foundationally functions, in super basic ways that would have taken less than 10 minutes in an academic library on the part of Morgenstern to get right. Universities do NOT use the Dewey Decimal System, the people shelving books are not librarians, and the student giving directions at the desk is (most likely) not a student librarian! To start out in such a poorly grounded setup really make it hard for me to get into, and felt like sloppy writing. This was so surprising, given the amount of depth and subtlety that this author uses in other places.

As a humorous aside, being a cataloging librarian, I had waaaaay too much angst about this mysterious book in the stacks, with a non-functional barcode and no metadata, all throughout the story. In the end, I stressed about the book more so than any of the actual story elements. Does the book ever make it back to the library, or get properly removed from the university collection??????? Is the book's meager library record ever corrected to reflect it missing???? YOU DID NOT CHECK THAT OUT!!!!! Aaagggghhh!!!! But that's just me....


message 4: by Megan (new)

Megan | 236 comments Sarah wrote: "When I started this, I'd forgotten just how engrossing Morgenstern's prose is. She really does have a gift for establishing a lush, dreamy space through her descriptions.

The book - I think the bo..."


I'm glad you brought up the library issues - I'm not a librarian, but I've spent enough time around libraries and worked for the government long enough that it seemed off to me, too - I couldn't describe it as well as you, though!

Since everything in the book seems so intentional, I wondered (much later in the book) if the librarian was a plant like the discussion group girl. The way that it seemed like she understood the concept of a library enough to blend in, but not the specifics of how it works, made it seem plausible that she could have read about how university libraries work, or at least read stories set in them, in preparation for her task of getting Zachary started on his quest. It just strikes me as odd that in a book that clearly has so much thought behind it, there would be this one setting that's so central to getting the plot going but has no other purpose.


message 5: by Kathy (new)

Kathy Klinich | 117 comments Sarah wrote: "When I started this, I'd forgotten just how engrossing Morgenstern's prose is. She really does have a gift for establishing a lush, dreamy space through her descriptions.

The book - I think the bo..."

So non librarian here. My son's friend had an internship in the Library of Congress this past summer. There was a collection donated in the 1930s that was shelved without being catalogued. Her job was to read stacks to see if she could find and pull them to fix it. So I was able to buy the misshelved books in the small college library. Although I sympathize-I hate when an error takes you out of the book. (My most recent was a character who injured her arm and referred to the tibia-how did nobody catch that?)


message 6: by Jen (last edited Jan 27, 2020 11:40AM) (new)

Jen (piratenami) | 193 comments I just finished this part, so I wanted to jot notes while it's still fresh in my mind.

1. I kind of think the incident with the door when he was a kid probably stuck with him and haunted him for most of his life. Like, a "what if" sort of thing. Plus, he's been studying narrative structure in school -- specifically games, and player-driven narratives. Seeing this incident recounted in the book with phrases like "Not yet" and "this is the beginning of a story" in the text... I felt like it was only natural that he would want to explore this now, when he has more control over his life and is more open to it.

2. I don't know where I got this feeling, but I felt like maybe he was afraid of leaving his mother behind when he first found the door. Like maybe he was trying hard to be a grown-up for his mom?

3. I was thinking along similar lines to Megan's thoughts: the bee for collecting knowledge like pollen, the key for the secrecy, and the sword to protect it.

4. As a writer and a gamer, I loved the meta discussion of story across both mediums. The ideas of meaning being what you bring to story, and of co-writing the story with the text. I have probably half this scene just highlighted on my Kindle.

5. The interwoven stories reminded me a lot of Valente's In the Night Garden. If you like this kind of stories-in-stories structure, I recommend checking that book out. I admit I had a little bit of trouble with immersion, as I mostly just wanted to get back to Zachary's story, but I think maybe I'm starting to see the beginnings of how all this interconnects.

6. I like the spelling out of Zachary's full name each time. It helps to remind you that you're moving on to his POV, plus it gives it more of that fairy tale/storybook feel. Plus, the part about Zachary in the book called him the boy, and the son of the fortune teller, so it helps to further differentiate what was in the book from the rest of the story.

7. The party scene was Zachary's introduction to the wider world. So far we've only seen him in the somewhat sheltered school setting. He's now diving into a world he knows nothing about, and I loved how he was in way over his head.

8. I'm still not sure what to think of Dorian, outside of the obvious literary reference of his name. I do think he's going to be important. If we're talking roles in the story, it feels like he's being set up as a guide, to show Zachary how to begin his journey. Whether he betrays him or not, I can't say. He does seem pretty shifty right now, though.

9. I don't know too much about theatre, other than loving Broadway shows. But I do love video games. All the talk about choice in narrative, about what the reader/player brings to a story, how your own experiences shape your experience of the story, etc. There's also a concept that you'll see sometimes in game criticism called the illusion of choice. Basically that a game makes you think your choices will matter, but the story will still come out in the exact same way whether you chose A or B, just in a slightly different way. I'm enjoying how Zachary's immersion in games and narrative structures cause him to approach things.

10. I think it's interesting that she's a fortune teller, because I feel like being raised in that sort of environment maybe pre-disposed Zachary to be much more accepting of weird or fantastical stuff happening to him? I like how Megan phrased it, about his mother being a different type of storyteller. She also referenced reading objects, which is another form of hearing stories.

Other thoughts... hmm. So far, I feel like, conceptually, this has some spiritual similarities with Seanan McGuire's Wayward Children novellas. Like the idea of finding one's door, living in other worlds out of stories, finding yourself through the journey. I might just be way off base, but that was my initial thought after finishing this section.


message 7: by Jennifer (new)

Jennifer (jenniferle) | 26 comments 1. I think anyone who found a random book in the library (or elsewhere) would be captured by it. I mean, how likely is that you would find such a thing? I would definitely be intrigued, and quite likely pretty freaked out. It reminds me a bit of the movie “Stranger Than Fiction,” which is one of my favorites.

2. It’s possible that when Zachary found the door when he was younger he wasn’t thinking about the fact that it might disappear. When we are kids, our sense of permanence is different than when we are adults because we have so much less life experience. Everything feels like it takes longer or has always been there or has never changed. He might have subconsciously thought he had plenty of time to go back should he change his mind. He had second thoughts, went back, and it was gone, which is why he is so much more willing to follow the book mystery. Also, the book shows it was definitely meant for him, and the door was just kind of a maybe.

3. Bee: The propagators of knowledge, spreading the pollen, keeping the flower of knowledge alive and thriving. Key: The caretakers. The guardians of the knowledge and the stories. Sword: The protectors of the bees and the keys, and ultimately of the world of stories and storytelling.

4 / 5 / 6. There is a definite parallel between the side quests in video games (discussed at the group) and the way this story is laid out. We go off on possibly related tangents, but we are always dropped back at the main story (although we don’t yet know which one the main story: Zachary or the world of the Starless Sea, or maybe both). I love the way this narrative is laid out. Morgenstern’s adeptness at creating such a dreamy, magical world is amazing, and it sticks with me even during the “real world” parts about Zachary. It is not confusing to me because she has done a great job making it clear where we re with the section headings.

7. I’m not sure yet how the stories from the party scene will relate, but I have no doubt they will. My main takeaway from the party is that Zachary is very willing to get outside his comfort zone when it comes to the book. As an introvert, going to the party on his own and talking to all those strangers must have been exhausting, but he is energized by his search for information.

8. I never trust a character who (seemingly) randomly pops up from nowhere and has the main character meet them in the middle of the night before sending said main character on a dangerous mission. It’s possible Dorian is trustworthy, but I’m withholding judgment for now.

10. Zachary’s mother, as a fortune teller, is also a storyteller. The difference is that rather than telling stories through more traditional means, she reads people and tells them stories they might not know about themselves.


message 8: by Megan (new)

Megan | 236 comments I never trust a character who (seemingly) randomly pops up from nowhere and has the main character meet them in the middle of the night before sending said main character on a dangerous mission.

I feel like that's pretty good advice to live by. :)


message 9: by Sheri (new)

Sheri | 833 comments Mod
I realized I never commented on any of the last book's posts after spending all the time making them. I figure I should actually contribute to the conversation this time, haha.

I wondered as I was reading if Zachary went along with everything in part because he was a gamer, and he studied literature and stories. The whole act of puzzling out things and going with the flow to complete puzzles and quests would feel natural, even if he realized it wasn't normal in the real world.

I thought it was a little strange that the kid Zachary would be more cautious than the adult, just because there's usually a reason kids are generally the protagonists of portal fiction. Kids usually have more sense of wonder, less certainty, are more willing to believe in spite of what they "know". Possibly because I had just read the first three Wayward Children books by Seanan McGuire.

The short stories interspersed confused me at first, I wasn't sure why the perspective kept changing. Once I figured out what was going on, and the tells at the top of each section for what that part involved, I grew to like it more.

I did like the meta feeling of a story inside a story, examining the very nature of stories inside a novel.

I sort of saw the party as the first "real" quest that you get in a video game that isn't the tutorials that teach you what you need to do. He left campus, he had to find people to talk to, find the clues, and along the way met characters that will be very important later on.


message 10: by Shel (new)

Shel (shel99) | 228 comments Finally got my hands on this and was able to start reading! I've just finished this section and I'm enthralled. My kids are clamoring for attention but if I have energy later I'll come back and share my thoughts.


message 11: by Shel (new)

Shel (shel99) | 228 comments In this section Zachary finds a mysterious book in the library, and finds himself in it. Why do you think this captured him so much? What would your reaction be, in a similar situation?

I would be similarly enthralled! I think I'd be totally blown away by finding myself in a book and would be chomping at the bit to find out about the author, because WTF? :)

Zachary found a mysterious door when he was younger. Why do you think he didn't try the door then, but was so willing to follow the mystery of the book?

I think he was young and scared. Older Zachary has lived more life and has devoted himself to games and stories. I think this quest would have to be irresistable to him!

Any thoughts so far as to what the Bee, Key, and Sword stand for?

Hmmm... not sure yet. Bees live in very structured societies that revolve around a queen, so maybe the acolytes are like the drones and workers that support whatever is going on down there? Clearly the swords are protectors, and the keys are perhaps the powers making the decisions? There's a hint that there used to be just one key (maybe the queen of the hive?) and that there are factions within the current cohort.

During the discussion group that Zachary leads, the nature of story is discussed. How does this relate to what Zachary has read so far in Sweet Sorrows, and the nature of reading this kind of story inside a novel?

It's very...meta. Not sure how else to describe it.

What did you think of the stories of Sweet Sorrows being woven into the overall narrative? Was it confusing? Helpful? Immersive?

I am loving it! Confusing, yes, but so intriguing.

Each of Zachary's PoV sections starts out ZACHARY EZRA RAWLINS, in bold and all caps. Is this significant? What does it do for the narrative? Did the different ways each type of section was presented help keep the sections distinct?

It reminds me of video game characters. I'm not really a gamer (although if I had time and energy I might like to be) but back in my Nintendo 8-bit days (yes, I'm that old) the player character was always shown in all caps.

What do we get from the party scene? How did the stories he was told there relate to the overall story narrative?

I want to think about this some more. I'm intrigued by the Time/Fate thing but I don't know what it means yet.

How does Dorian relate to the narrative so far? Does he seem trustworthy?

I don't think we know enough about him to know if he is trustworthy. He's clearly using Zachary just to get his book back, but he's just as clearly surprised that Zachary knows so little about everything going on.


I have to run and pick up my daughter on time so I'll skip the last few questions and just say that I want to go to that party!!!


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