The Sunday Section: Book Review - 'My Swordhand Is Singing'

More Marcus Sedgwick, this time in the 17th century realm of vampires … Not only do I love the cover for ‘My Swordhand Is Singing’, the title is one of my favourites.  I also love that he reclaims the vampire from the suave gentleman-like character, and emotional lovelorn creature that sparkles, and returns it to its original, frightening origin.

In the bitter cold of winter Tomas and his son, Peter, arrive in Chust and settle there as woodcutters.  But Tomas is a man with a past; a past that is tracking him with deadly intent.  As surely as the snow falls softly in the forest of one hundred thousand silver birch trees, father and son must face a soulless enemy and a terrifying destiny.

Sedgwick has set his story in ‘ Eastern Europe early 17th century The Land Beyond the Forests’ – in his ‘author’s note’, he explains that Transylvania literally means ‘The Land Beyond the Forest’.  Like I said in my review of ‘ Revolver', Sedgwick has the ability to evoke atmosphere and setting with a few carefully chosen words. You can feel the claustrophobia of what it must have been like to be in a snowed-in ‘ Godforsaken village in the middle of nowhere’; to traverse the eerie forest between Chust and the hut where Tomas and Peter live … ‘Even here among the thickness of the trees [the snow]  lay heavily on the ground, whisked and funnelled by the east wind into strange hills and troughs, like white beasts lurking at the foot of the birches.

Trees stretched off into the distance in every direction, becoming grey ghosts and then no more than suggestions of ghosts.

Being newcomers, father and son are looked on with suspicion by the villagers; Tomas doesn’t help matters with his excessive drinking.  For reasons known only to him, he has chosen to live outside the village.  Attracted to Agnes, a young girl who lives in Chust, Peter is more than a little embarrassed by his father’s behaviour.  But there is no denying that there is something inexplicably strange happening in and around the village.  Livestock is being killed, and it is obvious that wolves are not responsible; there are reports that the dead are visiting their still-living family.  Yet, the surly, unfriendly villagers are at pains to ‘normalise’ what are obviously not normal events.  The arrival of gypsies does nothing to alleviate the tension.

As the truth of the situation gradually stares Peter in the face, it becomes increasingly difficult for him to hang on to the ‘familiar’.  More and more, he finds himself wondering about the long, wooden box that has always been in his father’s possession, that goes everywhere with them, but that Peter is forbidden to open. 

The box was like his life, as far as Peter could see; something he had no control over, something shut away, not to be talked about, full of secrets and riches he must not explore.

Despite Tomas belittling the villagers’ superstitious fears and beliefs, Peter begins to suspect that his father knows more about events than he is letting on.  Although he has no love for the villagers, Peter is still willing to do all he can to help them, even though he does not understand what is happening.  And he is helped by one of the gypsies, a young girl, Sofia.

There is a hint of a traditional love story here, but the main one is between father and son, and I applaud Sedgwick for making that the focus.  Peter cares for his father, and it is obvious Tomas loves his son, but what has happened to make him crawl into the bottle time and again instead of facing his son, to refuse to speak of his life before he met his wife, Peter’s mother?  Sedgwick handles both characters with consummate care, gradually revealing the reason for Tomas’ silence and denial.

I liked Peter as the hero, a young man who is honourable, kind, caring and brave, despite being genuinely frightened by the inexplicable events.  Tomas is a very believable drunk, struggling between wanting to step up and do the right thing, but holding back in a misguided attempt to protect his son.  

Despite the vampire theme, the story isn’t fast-paced; there isn’t a great deal of action.  It is more unnerving than that, giving a sense of what it must have been like, battling something so unnatural, so appalling with nothing more deadly than farming implements, and folkloric beliefs.  I deliberately say ‘must have been’ because Sedgwick has taken as his inspiration, tales and reports of vampirism from eastern European countries; well-known reports like the Shoemaker of Silesia (1591), and Peter Plogojowitz (1725). 

These vampires were never aristocratic, but always of peasant stock, and were never pale but had a ruddy complexion; they were bloated, dirty, ragged creatures with blood on their lips.  And they went by many names, like vukodlakmoroiistrigoiivrykolakoiupir,  nachzehrer to name but a few; and one we’re most familiar with, nosferatu.

Sedgwick also weaves in other eastern European stories, like the Shadow Queen, and the Miorita, an old Romanian ballad, considered to be an important part of their folklore; and ceremonies, like the Wedding of the Dead – a symbolic marriage between a dead, unmarried man and a young, living woman so that he does not go to his grave a bachelor.  This way he fulfils the 3 stages of life – birth, marriage and death.  The bride is usually dressed in a white wedding dress – in the novel, Sedgwick has the bride in black to add to the haunting imagery – but the wedding guests are all dressed in black for the funeral.

There is one final ‘character’, and that is the sword …

‘… as foreign as the sun in winter.  Its slim but lethal blade curved back halfway along from the hilt, widened out for its last third, before tapering to a fearsome point.  The hilt itself was sheathed in horn; glossy, grey and mottled, and the crosspiece was an elegant brass creation.

I think the sword would make an interesting story in its own right, where it came from before Tomas found it 30 years ago when he was a different man, fighting alongside his king in Turkey.

I do have a couple of quibbles.  Sofia, who is a great character – feisty, brave and honourable – comes across as a touch underdeveloped; personally, I wanted to read and know more about her.  And the final fight with the undead of the Shadow Queen, and others she’d succeeded in turning – I found it was over too quickly.  The story had been building up to this showdown, and it was almost a ‘blink and miss it’ ending.  Then again, I’m not the target audience, this being a ‘young adult’ novel.  Still, I do enjoy the story – in my opinion, one of the best vampire stories of recent times.