Tuesday, January 11, 2011

My Swordhand is Singing by Marcus Sedgwick


I love the title of this book--it resonates, I think, with those ancient epic poems about heroes and battles, victory and defeat, which so many cultures seem to have developed.  It's a good choice for this story.  Sedgwick is a strong and elegant writer who excels at transporting his readers to the past and steeping them in generous amounts of action and chilly atmosphere.

My Swordhand Is Singing is a vampire tale.  It's not written in the current romantic "Bella and Edward" vein;  rather, it is rooted in old Eastern European folklore in which vampires were terrifying, deeply evil, and often quite disgusting to look at.   The folkloric motifs in this story are many--woodcutters, small villages surrounded by the dense wintry gloom of "Mother Forest", gypsies, magical songs and unearthly, unseen characters known as the Shadow Queen and the Winter King.  The charms and defenses against vampires that feature here are equally folkloric--garlic, millet, hawthorne, nets flung into graves.  An archaic ritual, the Wedding of the Dead, plays a pivotal role in the plot.  Sedgwick uses these old beliefs and traditions to create a feeling of historic authenticity, albeit one where the supernatural is dark and dreadful and thrives in the shadows of the natural world. 

Sedgwick's  story concerns the lives of the woodcutter Tomas  and his son Peter, nomads who have recently moved to a hut outside the village of Chust, where villagers view them with xenophobic suspicion.  Tomas is a troubled, violent man who drinks more than he works, and who has been keeping many secrets from his son.  I won't reveal exactly what they are, but they relate to his warrior past.  When a plague of vampires sweeps the village and both his father and the village elders are in denial,  Peter responds to try and protect his sweetheart, drawing his father into danger as well. 

Sedgwick creates some striking images, such as the vampire whose tongue slices through his victim's neck, or the grave with the hole just big enough for Peter to glimpse the corpse's eye, which suddenly opens. However, the chills are nicely balanced by the wholesomeness of Peter's character, which is always humble but grows in courage, determination and maturity.   This is a startling and satisfying book, an exciting story memorably told.

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