Skip to main content

"The Starless Sea" Book Discussion and Honey Orange Muffins Recipe

I wish to inspire readers, teachers, and book clubs to bake along with their reading and promote discussion about the books we've enjoyed.


One day a young Haitian-American boy, the son of a fortune-teller, is walking home from school and takes a back alleyway, where he sees a painted new door on the wall, with cryptic symbols of a bee, a key, and a sword. The door is glowing, almost beckoning for him to open it. But alas, he does not, and must wait many years to discover the Starless Sea.

One day in college, the same young man, Zachary Ezra Rawlins, finds a very aged book in the university library that is not in the catalog, nor does it have a clear author. The book is titled "Sweet Sorrows," and tells one story of a pirate in a basement (who is also a metaphor), condemned to die, and the girl who brings him food at night in exchange for stories. Like Arabian nights, using stories within stories, it also describes the Starless Sea, three paths of acolytes, a magic, infinite dollhouse, and it concludes with a boy, in front of a painted door in an alleyway, who chooses not to turn the handle and enter.

How a book could know a memory he never told anyone, he cannot fathom. So Zachary researches other books that were donated as part of the same collection. His curiosity leads him to a private ball, where he meets a woman dressed as an elegant Max from Where the Wild Things Are, and a man named Dorian, who tells a story of an Owl King, and leaves a card with a place and time to meet. Zachary will become involved in retrieving a book for this man from a secret society called the Collector’s Club where awaits a dangerous, alluring woman named Allegra, reminiscent of the White Witch in the Narnia books.

This book is often as fast paced and cryptic as The Shadow of the Wind, containing a white rabbit and falling into new magical places like Alice in Wonderland, as well as a dangerous woman wrapped in white fur robes like the Queen of Narnia. The Starless Sea is for lovers of libraries, books, mysteries, secret societies, and magic. It contains brilliantly written, poetic stories from the mysterious books mentioned within, tales of heartache, magic, and adventure, which you’ll long to return to with new perspective after finishing The Starless Sea.

“Far beneath the surface of the earth, hidden from the sun and the moon, upon the shores of the Starless Sea, there is a labyrinthine collection of tunnels and rooms filled with stories. Stories written in books and sealed in jars and painted on walls. Odes inscribed onto skin and pressed into rose petals. Tails laid in tiles upon the floor, bits of plot worn away by passing feet. Legends carved in crystal and hung from chandeliers.” -from "Sweet Sorrows", The Starless Sea

Perfect for fans of

  • The Shadow of the Wind
  • Alice in Wonderland
  • Arabian Nights
  • Mystery
  • Suspense
  • Libraries
  • Stories within stories
  • Secret societies
  • Underground worlds

Discussion Questions

  1. How are the pirate and the dungeon each a metaphor?
  2. There are three paths: the acolytes, guardians, and keepers (represented by the bee, the sword, and the key). Which sounds most and least appealing to you and why? Which is Zachary a part of?
  3. Why is devotion for acolytes, worthiness for guardians, and “keepers must have spirit and keep it aloft”?
  4. If you were to become a keeper, which story would you choose to memorize and know “as intimately as if they have lived it themselves and as objectively as if they have played every role within”?
  5. How did Zachary get his wish that “choose-your-own-adventure novels would come back into fashion”? Would you like one, or have you ever read one?
  6. How would a choose-your-own-adventure novel be similar to the video game Katrina Hawkins was developing? Which format do you think better lends itself to this sort of independent play and why?
  7. Can you see influences or elements from any of the games mentioned within this book (Skyrim, Bioshock, Pac-Man)?
  8. Why do some people want “to be able to make your own choices and decisions but to have it be part of a story; that narrative there to trust in, even if you want to maintain your own free will”? How does this tie in to fate and choice?
  9. What are the guardians tattooed symbol and why? Why does being a guardian mean being prepared to die, and “to wear death on your chest”? Who are the guardians in this story?
  10. What does it mean to be “young enough to carry fear with her without letting it into her heart”, like the young girl who finds the door in the woods in Sweet Sorrows?
  11. If you were invited to the Algonquin Hotel Annual Literary Masquerade, who or what would you dress up as and why? Were there any mentioned in the book you liked?
  12. Not only do Zachary’s new glasses happen to perfectly match his prescription in the Harbor, but what happens with books in other languages as well? Why do you think that is?
  13. What are some of the things the Kitchen in the Harbor offers? What would you have ordered?
  14. Why would book-places “tend to be more receptive to doors...because of the high concentration of stories all in one place”?
  15. What is the story of Simon and Eleanor? Who is their child?
  16. Why does the Keeper remain in the Harbor? When is he allowed to leave and what is his role in the tales?
  17. Who was the one to take Sweet Sorrows from the Harbor? What silly household object did he leave in exchange?
  18. Why does Allegra try to keep things locked up, and what does she think she is doing? Who was she?
  19. In the Harbor, how was time like a river with inlets flowing in different directions, into a space out of the river of time, especially with Simon and Eleanor?
  20. What were some of the lies and doubts in the form of voices in his head attacking Zachary before he reached the sanctuary of light? Do you think these could be a metaphor for something?
  21. How did Kat reply to the fur-coated lady in the bar who asked her about believing in fairy tales, and leaving our world behind for one where she would have a purpose in protecting something? Why do you think she responded that way?
  22. Who is the Kitchen? Is that what you expected, and was it fitting? How did Zachary realize who it was?
  23. Are “Endings... what give stories meaning”? Why? Do stories need resolutions?

The Recipe: Honey Orange Spice Muffins

The girl who brought food and drink to the pirate in the cell brought him “oranges...secreted in the pockets of her gown. Pieces of candied ginger wrapped in paper laced with stories.”

Zachary’s preferred drink is a sidecar, which consists of cognac, orange liqueur, and lemon juice. He prefers his without a sugared rim.

At the cafe by the library, Zachary ordered a lemon muffin, and from the kitchen in the underground library, he ordered a basket of muffins which included a lemon poppyseed one.

Zachary also left the books unattended in the library to go get what he called, “a quality muffin,” to which Dorian replied, “A quality muffin is just a cupcake without frosting.”

The liquid Zachary drank as one of his entrance tests tasted like “a honey sweetness but also smells of orange blossom and vanilla and spice.”

From the Kitchen, Zachary received, among other things, “a basket of warm pastries (three muffins of varying flavors…)”

When Simon drinks of the cup outside the Harbor, it tastes of “...cloves and night air.”

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

I combined honey, orange juice and extract, cinnamon and a hint of cloves to create this muffin that would taste like one might from the Kitchen, or like Zachary’s drink before he entered the Harbor.

Honey Orange Spice Muffins



  • 1/2 cup canola or light olive oil or unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup sour cream or Greek yogurt, at room temperature
  • 2 large eggs at room temperature
  • zest of 2 large oranges
  • about 1/2 cup juice of two large navel oranges
  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/8 tsp cloves
  • 1/8 tsp allspice
  • 1/8 tsp ginger
  • 1 tsp orange baking emulsion, (optional)

Baking Tip

If you measure the oil in the cup first, then use it for the honey, the honey will all slide right out without sticking to the cup.


  1. Preheat the oven to 325°. In the bowl of a stand mixer on medium-high speed using a paddle attachment, combine oil (or butter) with the honey, sugar, and orange zest for about two minutes. When those are combined, add the orange baking emulsion (if using it), followed by the sour cream.
  2. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour with the baking powder, salt, spices, and soda. Begin to slowly add this in quarter increments into the wet ingredients of the mixer while the mixer is on low speed. Halfway through, pause to add the orange juice, then finish with the flour. Mix until flour disappears, then add the eggs, one at a time. If some of the ingredients are sticking to the sides of the mixer, stop it and scrape down the insides with a rubber spatula. When all are completely combined, scoop about 3/4 full into a well-oiled or buttered muffin tin.. Bake for 17-19 minutes. Makes about 14 muffins.

Rate the Recipe


Similar Reads

Another book by Erin Morgenstern is the national bestseller The Night Circus, about a magic circus that appears one night, and two magicians who must duel to one of their ends.

Books mentioned within this one are The Catcher in the Rye, The Shadow of the Wind, Alice in Wonderland, the Narnia series, The Little Stranger, Sherlock Holmes, This Side of Paradise, Les Indes noires, The Age of Fable, King Lear, A Wrinkle in Time. Authors mentioned are Jane Austen, Shirley Jackson, Raymond Chandler, Keats, and Dante.

The Shadow of the Wind is just as fast-paced and mysterious, with secret libraries, secret societies who guard books against those who would destroy them, and san enigmatic author with a tragic past that is slowly unraveled.

Wintersong is about a girl who decides to bargain with the Goblin King, and one day when she is grown, live with him in the darkness underground. It is much like the story of the pirate and the maiden, and of Simon and Eleanor.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland also including tumbling underground because of a book into a magic world with a white rabbit.

The moon becoming a person and meeting someone at an inn is similar to certain elements in Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, except it is a star that falls to earth as a human, and her heart is coveted by greedy, evil witches.

The acolyte who can no longer tell her own stories is reminiscent of an author who lies about her own story, and makes up many others, only revealing the truth near the end of her life in The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. Also a tale of interwoven stories is a book by that same author called Once Upon a River.

Notable Quotes

  • “Even a pirate can recognize the beginning of a dance.”
  • “Some night she brings more than bread. Oranges and plums secreted in the pockets of her gown. Pieces of candied ginger wrapped in paper laced with stories.”
  • “Far beneath the surface of the earth, hidden from the sun and the moon, upon the shores of the Starless Sea, there is a labyrinthine collection of tunnels and rooms filled with stories. Stories written in books and sealed in jars and painted on walls. Odes inscribed onto skin and pressed into rose petals. Tails laid in tiles upon the floor, bits of plot worn away by passing feet. Legends carved in crystal and hung from chandeliers.”
  • “Whatever name this young woman was called before she will never be addressed by it again, it stays in her past. Someday she may have a new name, but for the moment she is nameless.”
  • “a moment with meaning. A moment that changes the moments that follow.”
  • “A reading major, that’s what he wants. No response papers, no exams, no analysis, just the reading.”
  • “Isn’t that what anyone wants though? To be able to make your own choices and decisions but to have it be part of a story? You want that narrative there to trust in, even if you want to maintain your own free will.”
  • “The world is strange and endings are not truly endings no matter how the stars might wish it so.”
  • “ be a guardian is to be prepared to die, always. To be a guardian is to wear death on your chest.”
  • “There is a door in a forest that was not always a forest...The door remembers the time when it was complete.”
  • “She is young enough to carry fear with her without letting it into her heart. Without being scared. She wears her fear lightly, like a veil, aware that there are dangers but letting the crackling awareness hover over her. It does not sink in, it buzzes in excitement like a swarm of bees.”
  • “There is a door at the bottom of a star-covered sea, resting in the ruins of a sunken city.”
  • “These doors will sing. Silent siren songs for those who seek what lies behind them. For those who feel homesick for a place they’ve never been to. Those who seek even if they do not know what (or where) it is they are seeking. Those who seek will find. Their doors have been waiting for them.”
  • “Devotion is for acolytes. Worthiness for guardians. Keepers must have spirit and keep it aloft. They are made keepers because they understand why we are here. Why it matters.”
  • “This is where we leave them—a girl and her pirate, a pirate and his savior—in a kiss in the darkness before a door opens. But this is not where their story ends. This is only where it changes.”
  • “Everyone wants the stars. Everyone wishes to grasp that which exists out of reach. To hold the extraordinary in their hands and keep the remarkable in their pockets.”
  • “You are here because you wish to sail the Starless Sea and breathe the haunted air.”
  • “If you believe enough to try to open a painted door you’re more likely to believe in wherever it leads.”
  • “This is not the first time they have stood together on these shores. It will not be the last. This is a story they will live over and over again, together and apart.”
  • " make the most of what moments remain between them before time and fate intervene. To give him more of her to remember.”
  • “Not all stories speak to all listeners, but all listeners can find a story that does, somewhere, sometime. In one form or another.”
  • “Books are always better when read than explained.”
  • “The Queen of the Bees has been waiting for you / Tales hidden within to be told / Bring her a key that has never been forged / And another made only of gold”
  • “Kissing, Eleanor thinks, is not done any justice in books.”
  • “...he wonders how perfection can be so disconcerting.”
  • “Maybe all moments have meaning.”
  • “There are so many pieces to a person. So many small stories and so few opportunities to read them. I would like to look at you seems like such an awkward request.”
  • “Strange, isn’t it? To love a book. When the words on the pages become so precious that they feel like part of your own history because they are.”
  • “The moon returned to this place as often as she could, in stolen moments of borrowed time. She had found an impossible love. She resolved to find a way to keep it.”
  • “I have felt what you are feeling myriad times. It does not get any easier. It simply becomes familiar.”
  • “There is no fixing. There is only moving forward in the brokenness.”
  • “Endings are what give stories meaning."

© 2020 Amanda Lorenzo


Naude Lorenzo on January 27, 2020:

Very interesting story, and super smart person to pull out this recipe out of the story, well done Amanda, thank you.

Anya Ali from Rabwah, Pakistan on January 27, 2020:

Thank you! That was an interesting read.

Related Articles