Review: The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick

Friday, January 9, 2015
Title: The Ghosts of Heaven
Author: Marcus Sedgwick
Genre: defying
Series: none
Pages: 336
Published: January 6, 2015
Source: Publisher via Netgalley
Rating: 4 out of 5

Timeless, beautiful, and haunting, spirals connect the four episodes of The Ghosts of Heaven, the mesmerizing new novel from Printz Award winner Marcus Sedgwick. They are there in prehistory, when a girl picks up a charred stick and makes the first written signs; there tens of centuries later, hiding in the treacherous waters of Golden Beck that take Anna, who people call a witch; there in the halls of a Long Island hospital at the beginning of the 20th century, where a mad poet watches the oceans and knows the horrors it hides; and there in the far future, as an astronaut faces his destiny on the first spaceship sent from earth to colonize another world. Each of the characters in these mysterious linked stories embarks on a journey of discovery and survival; carried forward through the spiral of time, none will return to the same place.

The Ghosts of Heaven is a challenging experience. It’s extremely difficult to explain, much less review coherently. I highly recommend, not just reading it, but purchasing it, because this book is not the kind of thing you can fully appreciate in one go. However, it’s also certainly not for everyone.

Sedgwick has crafted a novel around the concept of spirals and infinity. The book consists of four short stories that can be read in any of 24 combinations, though I think most will read them in the order they’re initially presented in. Each story is a separate genre, part of what makes the book so hard to pin down as a whole. The stories are tied together through a supernatural element and a recurring fascination with natural spirals. Snail shells, fern fronds, twists of rope. The spirals are the key, though in some of the stories, I’m not sure I understand the question. It’s a cerebral book.

Of the four stories, two have female protagonists with a strong feminist bent, while the other two have male protagonists. I found that I prefered the first two stories, with the feminist slant, as I thought they showed an interesting continuity in the struggles women face. I wish that thread had continued to the other two stories, as I felt both the asylum and the spaceship lacked an emotional connection.

The prose is beautiful, particularly in the first story, set in a prehistoric village. To illustrate the pre-literary nature of the narrator, the story is told in an almost poem like way. There’s no character development; the narrator isn’t even named, and yet I felt closer to her than any of the other characters.

The second and third stories are historical fiction, though the first is a relatively straightforward historical, focusing on a witch trial, while the second is a gothic thriller set in an asylum. They’re also the most connected of the stories, as the narrator of the asylum directly mentions the witch trials and the fates of the other characters in the witch’s village. The spiral theme works less well in these two, and I was left with a lot of unanswered questions.

Finally, the last story is an amazing descent into madness in outer space. This narrator is one of the guardians of a ship of people in cryogenic sleep. He awakens every decade to monitor the sleepers, run system maintenance, and then he too returns to his hibernation. Unfortunately, this is also the most challenging story. The science is murky and the twist is just strange.

Like the spiral, though, the end pulled the book around again, and I was left loving the story, the book, and the author’s balls.The Ghosts of Heaven is a hard sell. From the dense, scientific prologue all the way to an end that requires you to know the Fibonacci sequence, this book is not light reading. Of the four stories, I only love one. It’s uncomfortable and there are a lot of unanswered questions. But it’s undeniably unique. I’ve had more fun reading books, but I’ve rarely been so challenged.



    It seriously excites me so much to see someone else love this book because everyone else has hated it :( Sedgwick is one of my favorite writers, and though I don't think this is his BEST, I still really, really enjoyed it. Particularly the last story. The opening sequence of that last story scared the hell out of me mostly because I find space scary as shit anyway. Plus the wobbly timeshifty stuff fascinates me.

    I don't know if you've read anymore of Sedgwick's work but if you liked this one, I definitely recommend Midwinterblood, and also White Crow is my favorite. :D

    1. This was my first Sedgwick and I loved it! Jess did send me She's Not Invisible, but I'll add White Crow and Midwinterblood to my TBR.

      I liked the beginning of the sci-fi story a lot, but it kind of lost me with the timeywimey stuff. My favorite was definitely the prehistoric one. I'm really sad to see that it didn't work for a lot of our friends.


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