The Kiss of Death by Marcus Sedgwick
Though generically named, The Kiss of Death is a fantastically original and exciting novel, full of blood, danger, thrills, mystery, and legions of the undead. It is sequel of sorts to My Swordhand Is Singing, in that it features Peter and his father’s sword from the previous book, though here the attention turns to two new protagonists. Perhaps it’s better described as a companion piece to its predecessor, as although it’s not necessary to have read My Swordhand is Singing, familiarity with who Peter is and his experiences in his own story will add a certain weight to his doings here.
Best described as a Gothic horror-mystery, The Kiss of Death begins with a letter addressed to persons unknown, detailing the writer’s desire to murder its recipient. It is baffling to Markus, the son of the man who wrote the letter, who only knows that it is in his father’s handwriting and that he has disappeared after traveling to Venice to help a friend. Marko leaves his mother and siblings to go in search of his father, sailing to Venice and meeting with the daughter of his father’s patient: Sorrel Bellini.
Sorrel is the girl who sent Marko’s father’s letter back to his family, along with a plea for help. With plenty of problems of her own concerning her insomniac father who is steadily losing his grip on sanity, she’s none too pleased to see that the inexperienced and unworldly Marko is the only aid that arrives. But Marko is just as determined to find his father as Sorrel is to help her own, and together the two of them begin an investigation across the murky depths of Venice.
What follows is a twisty, terrifying plot that brings back the enigmatic foe from the previous book; the Shadow Queen. To say more about her would be to give away a few important plot points, but Sedgwick manages to infuse some tragedy in her character with the inclusion of a fairytale that outlines her own mysterious past and motivations. But for the most part the action centers on Marko and Sorrel as they wend their way closer to their fathers and to each other on a mystery that takes them into some truly creepy and frightening scenarios (imagine spending the night in a monastery with two decapitated corpses in the next room, or sneaking onto a haunted island where plague victims were once sent to die). They make a good pair, with his optimism and naivety offset against her cynicism and world-weariness.
Along the way they are joined by an enigmatic figure who hunts the Shadow Queen, a familiar face from the previous book, although greatly changed and perhaps not for the better. (Minor quibble, the character of “Sofia” is now re-spelt as “Sophia” for no clear reason).
Sedgwick writes in simple but evocative prose, and is a master at gradually accumulating clues and ratcheting up the suspense as each chapter goes by. Remarkably lean and straightforward in its plotting, not a single word is wasted in the gradual build-up of the mystery, and elements that are introduced early in the book return later in satisfying ways. Perhaps the climax is over too quickly, but getting there is a riveting reading experience.
Especially good is Sedgwick’s portrayal of Venice, brought to life not as the renowned place of beauty and culture, but of a flimsy façade that hides corruption and debauchery under the surface, filled with rotting estates and stinking canals. Essentially, this book fires on all cylinders, with strong characterization, vivid atmosphere, quirky plot developments and strong, suspenseful storyline. One of the rare sequels that is undeniably better than its predecessor, I’d give The Kiss of Death five stars all round.
The Swordhand — (2006-2008) Young adult. Publisher: In the bitter cold of an unrelenting winter Tomas and his son, Peter, arrive in Chust and despite the inhospitability of the villagers settle there as woodcutters. Tomas is churlish — taciturn at the best of times. He digs a channel of fast-flowing waters around their hut so they have their own little island kingdom. Peter doesn’t understand why his father has done this, nor why, all his life they’ve moved from place to place, or why his father carries a long battered box everywhere they go, and why he is forbidden to know its mysterious contents. But when a band of gypsies comes to the village Peter’s drab existence is turned upside down. He is infatuated by the beautiful gypsy princess, Sofia, intoxicated by their love of life and drawn into their deadly quest. For these travellers are Vampire Slayers and Chust is a dying community — where the dead come back to wreak revenge on the living. Amidst the terrifying events that follow, Peter is stunned to see his father change from a disillusioned man, old before his time, to the warrior hero he once was. Marcus draws on his extensive research of the vampire legend which permeates traditions throughout the world and sets his story in the forbidding and remote landscapes of the 17th century. Written in his usual distinctive voice, this is also the story of a father and his son, of loss, redemption and resolution.
Sedgwick’s novels are superb and they work for adults as much for his target audience. Possibly The Kiss of Death and its sort-of prequel would be more widely read if they were not, as you said, so generically titled. My Swordhand is Singing sat on the shelf for over a year before I got around to reading it, but Sedgwick’s imagination is enthralling and his version of vampires really hair-raising. The titles are the only generic fantasy thing about these books.