by Franny Billingsley
I went to the library with my little sister on Friday and we returned with a proper armload of books – 9 in total. I had told her that while I was at my parents’ house for my 3 weeks visit, I wanted to read ALL the good new YA fic, since I won’t have as much time to read once I start traveling. She dutifully put the books (which she’s mostly already read of course) into my hands until I had a stack that barely tucked under my chin. Since I spent the first 2 weeks of my visit finishing The Savage Detectives I was a little behind schedule if I wanted to read ALL the books, but I was determined to give it a shot. I conveniently came down with a cold, and tucked myself into bed with tissues and Dayquil and novels.
Over the weekend I read Forever by Maggie Stiefvater, finally laying the (were)Wolves of Mercy Falls to rest indefinitely. Then I blasted through Cinder by Marissa Meyer, and delighted in a cyborg Cinderella. I finished off with Chime which, to the dismay of my hard working white blood cells, kept me up far past my bedtime.
I enjoyed both Forever and Cinder and would be quick to recommend and praise them. They were perfectly sufficient in plotting, technical craft, and entertainment value. I know for a fact that Stiefvater has written a book that’s better than Forever in almost every way (The Scorpio Races), and as Cinder was Meyer’s debut novel she gets loads of kudos for a worthy effort and I’ll certainly look out for more books by her. I’m not comparing here, I’m just taking note of the fact that there are good books like these and then there are great books like Chime.
20 pages in, I said to the room in general, “OMG, I love this book,” and my little sister looked up from Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion (which I had recommended and she ended up liking, yay!) and said simply, “Right?”
At that point I didn’t really care what the story was about, or if I had connected with the characters, or if the setting was well realized – it was the writing that I was in love with. Franny Billinsley uses words in a way that grabbed me immediately. As my little sister went on to add (because she knew exactly what I was reacting to without my saying anything more,) “Every sentence is perfect.”
Billinsley has strange metaphors wrapped round her little finger. She repeatedly described objects or emotions in a way that I wasn’t expecting but that I immediately recognized as just right. Her word craft was a constant delight, a delicious surprise on every page. Lovely, dark prose, evocative and haunting but still rooted in reality.
Chime doesn’t just skate by on good writing though. It has an excellent story to tell too. The setting (wonderfully well realized, by the way) is a version of England at the beginning of the 20th century. The Steam Age is finding its way to the lands of Swampsea, where train tracks are just now being laid. The little village Briony grew up in is still the very end of the line though, and a long, long way from London. Golden, electric Eldric comes from London in his university clothes and refuses to believe that there could be anything dark about Briony other than the color of her eyes. Briony knows better though. She knows that it is her fault that her twin sister Rose is simple-minded. It is her fault that Stepmother’s spine was injured, and her fault that she died (Stepmother never killed herself, she wouldn’t). It is her fault that the children of the village are perishing from the swamp cough, her fault that the house flooded, and the library burned. It’s all her fault, for the simple reason that Brinoy is a witch. Perhaps she could fix it all, save the children, save Rose, save Eldric, but if she did so everyone would know that she was a witch, and then the Chime Child and Judge Trumpington would let them hang her by the neck til dead, and what good would that do anyone?
Billingsley makes Briony’s complexities real and terrifying and beautiful, expertly handling issues of guilt and mercy, balancing vulnerability with humor. The book is a mixture of mystery and fantasy, psychological analysis and wild magic. The Old Ones and Freud smash heads. The romance is lovely, natural and never cute. The details are exquisite, from Rose’s knitting needle screams (always pitched to B flat) to Brinoy’s first hangover.
It is a sad, darkly funny, achingly original tale. I said it on page 20 and again on page 361 – I love this book.
I think I read both Well Wished and The Folk Keeper when I was younger, but I believe I will read them again because Billingsley’s writing style is addictive. I may even read Chime again, much more slowly, savoring every word this time like I would sips of single malt scotch (amber and golden on the tongue, sparking fire on its way down my throat…)
It is somewhat amusing to me that I read two books this month that will very likely land on my favorites of 2012 list – this one, and The Savage Detectives. One book from each of the polar opposite ends of my reading tastes, and yet what I liked about them is similar – both were incredibly well written, original, challenging, funny, and strange. If the only two books I manage to read and review this year are The Savage Detectives and Chime, I will feel good about that.
Although I hope that won’t be the case! I’ll raise a glass (scotch, yes please) to the hope of at least a few more great books for me – and for you – before the year is out. Maybe Chime will be one of yours too?