Book Review: The Ghosts of Heaven

Posted December 15, 2014 by Kara in book review / 5 Comments

Book Review: The Ghosts of HeavenThe Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick
Published by Roaring Brook Press on January 6th, 2015
Genres: historical, literary, science fiction, young adult
Pages: 336
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
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A bold, genre-bending epic that chronicles madness, obsession, and creation, from the Paleolithic era through the Witch Hunts and into the space-bound future.

Four linked stories boldly chronicle madness, obsession, and creation through the ages. Beginning with the cave-drawings of a young girl on the brink of creating the earliest form of writing, Sedgwick traverses history, plunging into the seventeenth century witch hunts and a 1920s insane asylum where a mad poet's obsession with spirals seems to be about to unhinge the world of the doctor trying to save him. Sedgwick moves beyond the boundaries of historical fiction and into the future in the book's final section, set upon a spaceship voyaging to settle another world for the first time. Merging Sedgwick's gift for suspense with science- and historical-fiction, Ghosts of Heaven is a tale is worthy of intense obsession.

I’ve been struggling with this review for the better part of an hour now. Marcus Sedgwick’s books are always kind of “out there” and very different from what’s going on the rest of the YA world. His work tends to buck trends and ignores everyone else completely. In fact, I’d even go so far as saying his books aren’t really YA at all. There are a couple exceptions, but for the most part, I think his novels tend to transcend that kind of barrier.

Sedgwick’s characters vary in all sorts of ways, least of which is age. And The Ghosts of Heaven is not different in that respect. Two out of the four short stories were actually about adult men, which I found… not strange, but different. The other two were about teen girls. What I loved, and continue to love, about Marcus Sedgwick’s writing is that no matter how varied the characters in his books are, they always feel authentic. So often when an adult man is writing a teen girl’s POV, it seriously sounds like an adult man trying to be a teenager. But this doesn’t come through in The Ghosts of Heaven at all. All the characters are so unique and entirely themselves.

If you were a fan of Midwinterblood I think you will love The Ghosts of Heaven. This novel is comprised of four stories set centuries apart, all tied together by a recurring theme: basically, spirals and helices are bad omens and no good can come from seeing them. What I thought was particularly interesting about the structure of this book was that it could be read in any order you want to read it in. The stories are told chronologically, starting in prehistoric times, to the witch hunts, to the 1920s, all the way to centuries into the future. I opted to read the last story first and work backwards from there. I’m not sure if that affected how I felt about the book overall, since I ended up hating the last story I read (the first story in the book.) But I can definitely recommend starting with the last story because it was a total mindfuck.  I’ll tell you a little bit about them in the order I read them.

Story #4: The Song of Destiny. By far, this is my favorite quarter of the book. By a long shot. Set hundreds of years in the future, Earth as we know it is dying, and the human race needs to seek safe haven elsewhere in the universe. Having developed the technology to travel at the speed of light (and survive the years it takes) the Global Government sent out a ship full of some 500 people to repopulate the planet New Earth. The main character, Bowman, is one of the 10 Sentinels, those whose job it is to maintain the ship and its occupants. There is one Sentinel for every year who only wakes up for 12 hours out of his assigned year. Bowman wakes up and shit is going down. People are dying in their stasis pods for no apparent reason and he’s starting to see things out of the corner of his eye. If space freaks you out – and it scares the SHIT out of me – The Song of Destiny is going to terrify you.  The end if full of some weird time/space/physics wobbles that ordinarily would be hard to me to grasp, but Sedgwick made the subjects easily accessible.  There is a strange radio signal identifying intelligent life in the universe, there’s the murder mystery, and it hints at and ties together all the rest of the stories in this book.. it’s got so much going for it and it’s truly one of my favorite pieces from this author who I consider a favorite author of mine overall.

Story #3: The Easiest Room in Hell.  So this one kind of baffled me. Set in the 1920s at an insane asylum, there’s a lot of fodder here for scary or creepy or even twists and turns. However, it offered none of that, really. Instead, the main character, a doctor (named Perseverance of all things), becomes obsessed with one of his patients who is terrified of spirals. The patient seems entirely lucid and sane, but he is housed with the most disturbed individuals in the hospital, which is entirely confusing to Perseverance. Also, the patient knows way more about the doctor and his daughter than he ought to. Anyway, there’s a creepy child, an eery spiral staircase, and a truly evil psychiatrist to contend with in this one. My only problem is that I didn’t get a sense of closure at all. The story felt incomplete, if entirely intriguing and compelling. I just wanted to know more.

Story #2: The Witch in the Water.  I looooved this one! Set in England during the witch hunts, this follows a girl named Anna and her younger brother Tom just after their mother dies. Their mother was the midwife of the town and she treated the townspeople for other ailments too, giving them teas and poultices and the like. She was well known and nearly everyone was in need of her services. We meet Anna just as a new priest is coming to town. He’s tasted witch blood before and he’s on the hunt for more evil and devilishness, and he’ll stop at nothing to take Anna down. It’s horrifying and the story made me feel almost claustrophobic. It was so frustrating watching the townspeople turn on Anna, and how the priest used her brother’s epilepsy as evidence of possession. The ending is not a happy one, and I was left feeling haunted and angry and awed.

Story #1: Whispers in the Dark. I hated this. This is written in verse, but I use the term lightly. It pains me to say this, because like I said earlier, Sedgwick is among my favorite authors ever, but there was nothing poetic about Whispers in the Dark at all. I know the simple language was used to illustrate the prehistoric time period, but was just too simple and repetitive and so fucking boring. Honestly, this story was SO BORING. I skimmed most of it – even though it was written in free verse – just to get to the end and figure out how the helix played into everything.  I’ll admit that I really enjoyed the ending. I only wish that this hadn’t been written in free verse, and instead had been written from a first person perspective, written through regular prose. A different style would have made an intriguing story much, much more palatable and a hell of a lot less boring.

This isn’t Marcus Sedgwick’s best book, in my opinion. But this is still quite phenomenal. With the exception of one story (and only the writing of that story, really, not the content) I was blown away by The Ghosts of Heaven. Spanning generations and genres, I truly believe this book has something for everyone.


5 responses to “Book Review: The Ghosts of Heaven

  1. I’m reading this soon, and I’m very excited. Although I suspect I will read the stories in order, since reading them out of order just feels…wrong. So happy you loved it! I’m curious to see what I think of Whispers in the Dark, because whenever someone says they hated something, I feel the need to challenge myself to see what I think:D
    Tammy @ Books, Bones & Buffy recently posted…Book Review Giveaway! It’s the Last One of 2014My Profile

    • It felt weird to me too, but the way I read it, it made total sense. I think if you read it 4 to 1 or 1 to 4 it will make perfect sense, but if you mess with the order more than that, it will start to get too weird.

      I know exactly how you feel about “controversial” titles. Every time I see someone vehemently hate something I reallllllly want to read it (unless it’s like, racist or homophobic and THAT’S why they don’t like it.)

    • I hope you love it! Midwinterblood isn’t a personal favorite (that’s White Crow) but I think objectively, it’s his best work so far.

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