Monday, May 30, 2011

Review of Chime by Franny Billingsley

Billingsley, Franny.  Chime.  Dial, 2011.

Like Billingsley's Folk Keeper, this fantasy takes place in a country that is recognizably England (in the early part of the 20th century, in Chime's case), but in this version of England, there are fairies and brownies and witches and vampires and Old Ones.  Folks might live their whole lives never coming in contact with these creatures, but most people acknowledge that they exist.

17-year-old Briony and her twin sister Rose lead a lonely life with their distant dad in a tiny village by a swamp, but when a developer and his handsome, charming son Eldric come to stay, everything changes.  Briony, who knows she has terrible witchy powers that can (and in fact have) hurt people unless she keeps them under control, allows Eldric past her defenses - and who can blame her?  The guy is really a dream - leonine, with a quirky boyish charm and sheer niceness that is absolutely pure and real.

Briony is also a teenage girl, and she can't help wanting to be happy and to have the kind of life and love that normal girls have.  It's a pleasure to watch her thaw out and relax in Eldric's company, and to begin to contemplate the possibility of a joyful future.  Except - the swamp is being drained by Eldric's dad, and the powerful spirits in the swamp don't like it, and bring a deadly sickness upon the villagers.  Only Briony has the chance of reversing it - but if she does, everyone will recognize her for the witch she is.  And witches get hanged.

Briony has been told, from a very young age and by someone she trusted and loved, that she has caused terrible harm. Although the reader, experiencing not just Briony's inner thoughts but also her wit and humor, will come to doubt her wickedness fairly quickly, it takes Briony frustratingly long - the whole book - to realize it herself.  Her sense of self-worth has been almost destroyed, and it feels so good when she finally decides she is, after all, loveable.

This is a captivating book, for Briony's changing perceptions of herself, for the characterizations of vivid people like Rose and Eldric, and for its sweet romance.  The writing is, as always with Billingsley, a joy.  Briony's fanciful voice, melodramatic, lyrical, and goofy by turns, kept me captivated all the way through, and the dialogue is quick-silver and entrancing. The uneasy relationship between the worlds of the humans and the Old Ones remains rather mysterious, but clearly blood and violence is never far away.  There are deaths and maimings, most caused by hostile spirits in the swamp.  The hanging of a young woman by the villagers, thought to be a witch, is a jarring note, not least because it seems to make little difference in the psyches of any character to learn, beyond a doubt, that she was innocent.  

Highly recommended for fans of Libba Bray's A Great and Terrible Beauty and other stories of teenage girls with a strong link to the magical world.  Ages 14 and up.

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