I read Billingsley’s The Folk Keeper back in the day (2007) before having a book blog (but I did write a very brief review which is on goodreads), and I liked it. It was different enough to stick in my mind and to take note of the author’s name. Fast forward to this year, and when I saw Chime being marketed, I was excited, and I asked for a review copy via Shelf Awareness. This is a review based on an ARC copy.
The Premise: Swampsea is a place that sits on the edge of a strange world – where creatures like witches, Dead Hands, Dark Muses, and the Boggy Mun await the unwary who stumble upon them. Briony Larkin is the daughter of the local clergyman, and she can see these Old Ones. Why she has this second sight is a dark secret that could have Briony hanged – her true nature is why her stepmother is dead and why her twin sister is different. To stop herself from harming more people, Briony promised her stepmother that she would avoid the swamp. Sadly, this is promise that is impossible to keep, and Briony fears that she has caused more destruction on those around her. While Briony frets and tries to right her wrongs, Eldric Clayborne, new arrival at Swampsea and the first boy Briony doesn’t find tiresome, gets dangerously close to unraveling her secrets.
My Thoughts: This story starts off in a puzzling, “I can almost make sense of this, but not quite”, way. It begins with Briony, and she’s telling someone that she deserves to be hanged. Obviously there is something wrong and as she tells us her story, more things just don’t seem to add up. Briony admits early on to not being a “regular girl” and not having any idea how to be. She tells us her family is not normal either, and from Briony’s first description, I believe her. She describes awkward silences at home, her sister’s childlike behavior, and her stepmother’s death. Then Briony begins to describe the swamp and the creatures in it. She uses terms like “the Boggy Mun”, “the snickleways”, and calls herself a “wolfgirl”. The past weaves in out of the present in her storytelling.
I began to suspect that Briony was actually quite crazy.
Briony isn’t crazy, but her world is. It’s like Wonderland – where all the residents know the rules, but any newcomer will find themselves completely at a loss and in disbelief at the local customs. Of course you need to bring a Bible Ball (a piece of scripture) into the swamp to ward off the Old Ones! Of course the Dead Hands will come to grab your hand and squeeze it off, unless something else finishes you off first! It’s not intuitive at first, but once you understand what the Old Ones are and what they do, it starts to make sense. So too does how Briony’s past affect her present.
No, Briony isn’t crazy but she is an unreliable narrator. Everything she tells the reader is colored by her belief of her own wickedness, and some of her “of course”s may not be the indisputable truths she thinks they are. In Briony’s industrial English world, a place like Swampsea is at odds with the new and exciting progresses in science and engineering. Briony feels keenly aware that Swampsea doesn’t have the same shine and bustle as the city, nor does she have the education she would have had if not for her stepmother’s illness. But while Briony feels like she and Swampsea lack refinement, Eldric challenges her outlook. He sees Swampsea as an amazing place, a different planet, where he must do as the locals do (“when in the Dragon Constellation, it’s wise to do as the Dragon Constellationers do”), and he likes Briony as she is.
As a reader I was inclined to share Eldric’s sentiments: Briony is likable, despite what she thinks. She has a sharp humor that she wields like a weapon, but only on those who deserve it. Otherwise, she’s a fiercely protective champion of those weaker than herself. And although Briony is like the moon to Eldric’s sun, they’re really quite complementary. Eldric is a fun, boyish character, endlessly making his “fidgets”, speaking to Briony in their own silly language, and organizing events which make ordinary days special, but he’s not frivolous at all. Behind his laughing exterior is a gentle astuteness which Briony fears will be her undoing. The relationship between the two is something that unfurls slowly – from Briony determined not to like him, to an easy friendship, to an uneasy friendship, and more.
I really enjoyed the way this story kept my interest with it’s strange world building but at the same time, the development of the characters (all quite colorful and three dimensional) and the romance is deftly done. Even though sometimes Briony’s narrative goes off in odd tangents, once I settled into her storytelling style, it adds to the flavor of the story. Chime is not a book that I could read cover to cover though. I could only take it in small pieces, digest what was going on, then continue. Overall I think this book, the ARC only 358 pages, took me something like 10 days of slow reading, savoring each scene, for me to finish it. I think this odd duck quality is what makes me hesitate to recommend it to everyone I know. But me? I loved it. It was one of those books that made me sigh contentedly when closed its pages.
Overall: Chime is a historical fantasy that has a mix of whimsy, creativity, and emotional depth. It’s also a story with an odd flavor. It took me a little bit to adjust to Briony’s world and her way of thinking, and I had to read Chime a few pages at a time so I could process it at my own pace, but it was so worth it. In the end, I loved it. I loved Briony. I loved Eldric. I loved Swampsea. It’s weird, but in a wonderful way, and I just felt good after reading it. I know this is going to be on the top ten list for this year.
Steph Su Reads – positive
Chachic’s Book Nook – liked, but didn’t love
My Favourite Books – positive
The Book Smugglers – 9 (Ana), 7, leaning towards an 8 (Thea) – I’m with Ana on this one
Ellz Readz – positive
The Reading Date – positive