The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick
Genre: Unable to categorize!
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Release date: January 6 2015
Source: eARC from publisher via NetGalley
The nitty-gritty: A quartet of interlinked stories set in different time periods, joined together by the recurring theme of the spiral. A complex story that requires some thought and patience, with a big payoff.
How arrogant is man, Bowman has sometimes wondered, to think he can know everything about the universe while stuck to the surface of a tiny planet in a remote region of the galaxy? Yes, great things have been learned, but not everything. There is always the unknown. No matter how high you climb on the spiral staircase, there is always another turn of the stair, out of view, and that’s where the unknown lies.
The Ghosts of Heaven was one of those books that completely surprised me. I had seen lots of mixed reviews on Goodreads, and I mean mixed, folks! And so I was curious to read it for myself. This is my second Marcus Sedgwick book, and while I enjoyed the last one (She is Not Invisible), I absolutely loved The Ghosts of Heaven. Not everyone will “get” this book, and it’s not a page turner or a plot-heavy story. I’ll admit it took me until the middle to finally see where it was going, and how everything would eventually tie together. The Ghosts of Heaven will make you think about big concepts, like our place in the universe and how everything is connected. It’s a philosophical piece that asks some tantalizing questions about our existence, and it does so by traveling through time and space. It requires a patient reader, and if you are that person, I guarantee you will love this book.
The story is divided into four “quarters,” and each one has its own set of characters and takes place during a different period in time. In his introduction, Sedgwick explains that the quarters can be read in any order, and the story will still make sense. Being the slightly OCD person that I am, I started at the beginning and proceeded in the normal way, reading the stories in order. I found this to work extremely well, and I urge you to do the same. The last story, in my opinion, is the linchpin of the bunch, and brings together elements from the previous three stories. All four revolved around the theme of spirals, and the way they appear in nature and art, over and over again. Briefly, here is a breakdown of the four stories:
Whispers in the Dark. This story in verse describes an ancient tribe of people who use cave art to communicate and “do magic.” A young girl hopes that she will be chosen to be “the one who will go to the caves” and make the magic on the cave walls, magic that will ensure successful hunting. The girl is chosen, but not for the reason she wants. As she travels through the forest, she notices the beautiful spirals found in nature, like a snail’s shell and the tender leaves of a fern. This is a harrowing story full of danger and explores the beginnings of written communication.
The Witch in the Water. A minister comes to a small town and sets out to wreak havoc on the innocent people who live there. A young girl, who makes medicines from the plants in the forest, is accused of witchcraft after the visiting minister convinces the townspeople that she is evil. This was an unsettling story with slowly mounting tension, as one by one, the villagers start to believe that she is a witch.
The Easiest Room in Hell. This was my second favorite tale, and it’s told through journal entries by a man named Doctor James, who has just come to work at the Orient Point Lunatic Asylum. There he meets an inmate named Charles Dexter, a man who appears sane on the outside, but is actually irrationally terrified of anything spiral-shaped, including the massive spiral staircase at the center of the asylum. James bonds with Dexter and is convinced he can help him recover, but the evil Doctor Phillips has other ideas. Sedgwick’s asylum is surrounded by the sea, which gives this story a Gothic feel. He uses foreshadowing to great effect, and the format reminded me of Dracula. This was a sad and chilling tale, and Sedgwick cleverly drops in clues from the previous two stories.
The Song of Destiny. Definitely my favorite, the last story jumps to the future, as a spaceship of five hundred sleeping people hurtles toward a planet called New Earth, a journey that will take one hundred years. Keir Bowman is a “sentinel” on the ship, one of ten people who are tasked with waking up every ten years to make sure all is in order. This was the scariest of the bunch, as we soon discover a terrifying mystery that Bowman must solve during his waking hours.
Each story feels completely different from the others; and yet somehow, it all makes sense when you’re finished reading. Over and over, Sedgwick uses the spiral as a way to unite the characters together, and ultimately, as a way to explain life itself:
“You can never make it back to where you began, you can only ever climb another turn of the spiral stair. Forever.”
I do have one complaint—or rather it’s something I’m puzzled by—and that is I don’t understand why this book is being marketed as young adult (according to Amazon, it’s for ages 12 and up). Most of the characters are adults, and the thoughtfully complex themes seem more suited for adult readers. I’ve been running across more and more “young adult” books that seem to be mislabeled, and I’d love to find out the reasoning behind some of these marketing decisions. I think by being labeled “young adult” The Ghosts of Heaven will miss out on a more appreciative audience.
This is a special book, something unique that won’t appeal to every reader. But for those who enjoy puzzles and coincidences, this is a beautifully written story that will give you chills as you read the last lines.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. The above quotes were taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.
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