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My Swordhand is Singing

Review

My Swordhand is Singing

The immediacy of TV and movies have trained our brains to fear quick pans of the camera, the pulse-pounding screech of violins and enough buckets of blood to sate Dracula for life. But take away the visual cues, remove the unsettling soundtrack and what passes for fear becomes decidedly less potent. Some terror comes not from what is seen but by what is unseen: the fear of anticipation. In very much a tip of the hat to this gothic tradition, Marcus Sedgwick brings MY SWORDHAND IS SINGING to the table with scares that don't leap out suddenly but burrow into your psyche very slowly, very quietly.

The story centers on young Peter and his drunken father, Tomas, in the early 17th century. Both are woodcutters in Eastern Europe who have settled near the small village of Chust after years of wandering from town to town. Distant from each other, Peter finds his father's behavior unusual. Tomas has a box that Peter is forbidden to open. Tomas digs a trench around their home and breaches a nearby stream so the water flows around the house like a moat. And Tomas refuses to talk about his past --- a past that seems to follow them no matter where they go.

When a young bachelor in the village dies mysteriously, the villagers hold a Nunta Mortului --- Wedding of the Dead --- to spare him the fate of going into the ground unmarried. To accommodate this, the village elders elect Agnes, a young friend of Peter's, to be the dead man's bride. A graveside wedding takes place before Agnes is banished to a small shack at the edge of town so that she can grieve properly. But when Peter defies the elders by secretly visiting Agnes in the night, he discovers to his horror that he's not her first visitor. Her dead husband has also made a midnight trip to the shack. And he's not the only recently dead villager to roam the streets at night.

If you like your scares fast and furious, this isn't the book for you. Sedgwick crafts a slow, deliberate build to the terror that permeates the story, and the result is a fear that creeps in subtly and will stay with you longer than any boogeyman jumping from the bushes and screaming. This is a smart, beautifully written story that brilliantly uses the Miorita --- a story-song legend that reappears over and over again --- as a thematic device that delivers an effective punch at the end.

This is a rare example of a vampire story where the word “vampire” never appears (although nosferatu makes an appearance). The walking dead are referred to by a band of Gypsies as “hostages.” The vampire lore is grounded more in the deepest, darkest legends surrounding the myth, rather than the sexy, alluring themes that have cropped up in most modern YA vampire novels. Sedgwick returns to the basics and, in doing so, creates a stunning and frightening story that will appeal to readers who know there is more to fear in what you can't see than in what you can.

Reviewed by Brian Farrey on October 18, 2011

My Swordhand is Singing
by Marcus Sedgwick

  • Publication Date: October 9, 2007
  • Genres: Fantasy, Gothic
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books
  • ISBN-10: 0375846891
  • ISBN-13: 9780375846892