My swordhand is singing by Marcus Sedgwick.
What a fantastic title!
That alone would have sold me on this book. But when I read a recommendation for it on an online list about great vampire stories that also included Sunshine by Robin McKinley, which I loved, I couldn’t place a hold fast enough.
Then I got to thinking, hmmm, I remember really enjoying another book by Sedgwick ages ago….so I looked it up, and found it was The book of dead days. I also found out that My swordhand is singing won the 2007 Booktrust Teenage Prize and was shortlisted for a Carnegie Medal in 2007. That made me even keener to read it.
When it arrived on the hold shelf for me, I thought WOW!! Look at that cover! I love it!
So my expectations for it were, by now, sky-high.
And it didn’t disappoint.
This story completely kicks 17th century Transylvanian undead butt!
It is a teen novel but there’s not a sparkly, sulky or sultry vampire in sight. Hooray! These vampires are hardcore traditional – if you want a movie visual bypass that Pattinson boy completely and don’t even think Bela Lugosi in a dinner jacket, this is much more like the original 1922 Nosferatu: cadaverous, bloated with blood, terrifying.
My swordhand is singing is the coldly atmospheric story of what happens when an itinerant woodcutter, the drunkard Tomas, and his son, Peter, cease their wandering and settle down near the village of Chust. Peter doesn’t understand why his father chooses a lonely spot outside of the village to build their hut, where two rivers meet. Nor why his father insists on digging a trench between the rivers to place their home on an island.
But Tomas know what he’s doing, although he’d rather not. He is haunted by his memories and seeks refuge in the oblivion of alcohol. He refuses to tell Peter anything. Mysterious events pile up, ratcheting up the tension, until Peter’s ignorance is nearly the un-death of him.
I don’t want to discuss the plot too much, because it really is worth uncovering yourself. I will say that I loved the way Sedgwick has incorporated so many aspects of traditional vampire lore, and Romanian folk culture, into this story. Read it, if only to find out about the Nunta Mortului and the Miorita and why you shouldn’t go for a walk in the Transylvanian woods without a pocket full of millet. (Oh, alright, go and Google them! But I warn you, you’re missing out….)
And if My swordhand is singing inspires you to find out more about vampires before they went all cool and sexy and post-modernly ironic, put a hold on this little non-fiction gem: Slayers and their vampires : a cultural history of killing the dead by Bruce A. McClelland. It offers very well researched insight into the beginnings of Eastern European vampires and the social politics of their destruction.
McClelland draws some interesting parallels between the hysteria surrounding vampire ‘plagues’ in Eastern Europe and the witch hunts busily burning and hanging thousands of, mostly, women in the west of the continent, both of which occurred during the period of history known as the Age of Enlightenment. But I suppose that’s one of the problems with the use of an isolated source of light – it makes the shadows that much deeper and darker.