From the title onwards, Marcus Sedgwick's My Swordhand is Singing is a poetic tale set in the isolated, hostile environment of the forests of seventeenth century Romania. It tells the story of the woodcutter Tomas and his teenage son, Peter, who are outsiders in the village of Chust. The pair cannot seem to find a place to settle, although they have spent longer in Chust than anywhere else before, and Peter is starting to put down some roots, beginning a tentative romance with Agnes, the daughter of the draper. However, Tomas is keeping secrets from his son (such as what is hidden in the long wooden box that Tomas hides under his mattress), and strange and menacing things are happening in Chust: a man who died recently in mysterious circumstances is said to be visiting his widow at night, and she is looking pale and weak as a consequence. Something is very, very wrong in Chust.
In an author's note, Sedgwick notes that there are many old vampire legends, which all tell different stories, some of them contradicting others. In some of the legends, the undead are the fang-toothed vampires of Hammer Horror movies, whilst in others they are more like zombie flesh-eaters, and in still others they are werewolves. Sedgwick explains that My Swordhand Is Singing is inspired by all these varied and ancient Eastern European legends of vampires, and combines them them to make a new retelling.
Sedgwick writes with a concise precision that still allows for poetic expression, such as this:
There was nothing for Tomas now.
Not the singing.
Not the square.
Not the dead.
Not even Sultan.
Just the sword, that flew so fast that the air itself was cut in two.
But the hands grasped and grappled and there were too many. He was pulled from Sultan's back landing clumsily in the mud.
From a seemingly vast distance, he heard a cry.
Peter. It was his son, Peter, sprinting to be beside him in a moment. Dimly, Tomas saw Peter snatch the sword from the ground and begin to swing it wildly about him. The hostages [vampires] faltered, shocked by the fluid energy of the boy, by his strength.
Tomas' eyes were closed, but in his mind he could see Peter twisting and stroking the blade from side to side.
'That's it,' he whispered. 'That's it. Feel it.'
In his heart, he hread Peter's reply.
'Yes, Father. My swordhand is singing.' (pp. 187-88)
Sedgwick doesn't waste words as he paints a chilling Gothic picture of the fight between good and evil. My Swordhand Is Singing is tense, unnerving and beautifully structured so that every element is woven into the tale in a seamless manner. This tale features love, courage, regret, loss, and redemption, plus a strong dose of the supernatural. This is definitely one of the best books I've read this year.