Word Magic: Kelly Reviews “Chime” by Franny Billingsley

Chime by Franny Billingsley
Genre: Young adult supernatural romance with a mystery woven throughout
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Summary: Briony Larkin has secrets, and secrets in the town of Swampsea can kill. As one of the twin daughters of the town’s minister, she was used to the stares. But with the recent events in her life, the interest increased tenfold. First there was the flood and then a fire in her home. But her stepmother’s apparent suicide marked their family for tragedy. The town itself is plagued with the swamp cough, an illness that takes the lives of children. At the center of all the mystery is Briony. As a witch, she feels responsible for these events . But witches swing from the gallows in Swampsea, so she has learned to stay silent. However, the arrival of Eldric, a handsome young man from London, throws her tightly controlled world into disarray.

Young adult paranormal romance is a *thing* right now. I believe we can blame the Twilight Saga for that (please see my fellow Bibliomantics’ posts on Twilight for our collective thoughts on that pile of bound words). So I was a wee bit apprehensive to read this book, which one of my teen book club kids recommended. Let me assure you, dear readers: There are no sparkly vampires with control issues, no creepy werewolf friends who don’t get that “no means no,” and no lifeless females without agency.

In fact, Chime is everything that Twilight is not. It’s a haunting combination of beautiful writing and engaging plot. Following Briony through her dark days in the Swampsea as she struggles with overwhelming guilt and anger while fighting her blossoming affection for Eldric was an adventure I was glad to partake in and equally reluctant to leave.

I don’t often comment on setting. To me, the time period can be an interesting factor or backdrop which enriches the story experience. But I really loved the Swampsea. Setting became a vital part of the story, just like the moors of Wuthering Heights. Swampsea is a town not too far from London in a time that is not too far from the turn of the 20th century. It’s on the cusp of modernity – there is talk of motor cars that Eldric brings from the city. Some buildings have gas lights while others still use candles. A railroad is being built right over the swamp, which would connect the town directly to the big city. But the town still exists in the pagan past. Beings of the spirit world, called Old Ones, live in the swamp. There are water spirits (one called Mucky Face is Briony’s favorite), evil Old Ones like Dead Hand who will try to pull you into the depths, and witches try to steal children from the town. The swamp is wild; both beautiful and chilling, a place of danger and thrills. It so wonderfully mirrors the issues going on with Briony’s own life.

Speaking of those issues… wow. Billingsley does a masterful job of showing the reader Briony’s character changing before us. This is such a complex plot, and I don’t want to give anything away. So forgive me if I speak vaguely. For reasons that you will find out if you read *suggestive eyebrows*, Briony has a whole lot of guilty feelings. She feels responsible for her sister Rose, who has severe social problems. She also knows something is not quite kosher about her stepmother’s death, but can’t place her finger on it. Her father has been distant for a very long time, and Briony feels she must keep everything from falling apart without any help. And oh hey – she is a witch. She can speak to the Old Ones and the spirits of the dead and knows the swamp better than any other person. But she can never reveal that to anyone, as she knows the town would believe her evil. As she states, she must keep her “Briony mask” from slipping.

The writing reflects the changes in Briony’s character. At first, Briony’s voice is almost mechanical in its wryness. She seems distant from the things around her, and often ends thoughts with short sentences that sums stuff up. Yet, as the story progresses, we start to see Briony come alive on the page. She is more engaged and stops pretending that she doesn’t care about certain people. The language changes too. There is less commentary on Briony’s part, and more action and reaction to the events around her. The subtly of this is really wonderful, especially as it’s tied to the unraveling of the mystery surrounding Briony.

The person really responsible for making Briony take off her self-imposed mask is Eldric. And this relationship is how a romance should be written *looks pointedly in the direction of Stephenie Meyer.* Eldric and Briony are FRIENDS at first. She scoffs at his boy-man nature, and secretly admires his genuine kindness. He brings her back to the swamp for the first time since her stepmother’s death and reminds her of what it’s like to want to be alive, to want to enjoy every minute. He also makes her jealous and irritates her to no end. One of my favorite parts is a hilarious drunk scene, and the spot-on humiliation of awareness during the morning after. Basically, he makes her feel again without wanting anything in return. And my god, was that simple notion one of the most romantic things I’ve read in a long time.

Did I mention how well-written this whole thing is? On one level, it’s a straight-up good story: enter a stranger, things change. Death! Witches! Romance! Then there is all this subtext – political intrigue, nature versus modern living, family interactions, falling in love when you don’t love yourself. But the most brilliant part is the way this story comments on the ways stories affect us. Briony has some problems with memory (which ones are real versus not), as over the years there has been some manipulation. Which leads into this whole idea of stories, and how stories being told to us again and again create paths which we follow. There are constant references to how stories should be, and how Briony defies the tropes anyway. By choosing to tell her own story in her words, she is finally able to see the truth about the past, and to chose a story that she wants to live in the present.

THE GOOD:
– The writing is phenomenal. Subtle and layered, haunting and lyrical.
– A romance in which I can believe.

THE BAD:
– the mystery aspect becomes pretty obvious after a point. But that wasn’t the most intriguing part of the novel for me, so no big.
-Briony has a bit of a martyr complex, especially in the beginning.

My favorite line is also the last of the novel – “How can something as fragile as a word build a whole world?”  Billingsley shows us how with her excellent novel. Chime takes Briony’s words and constructs a complex and believable world around them, showing the way we use art to create meaning in our lives.

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