Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Review of Chime by Franny Billingsley

Jane Austen meets the lovechild of Terry Pratchett and Diana Wynne Jones, with Neil Gaiman as godfather and Libba Bray as godmother...

Sort of. Only not at all, because we're talking Franny Billingsley, okay?

There are a couple of authors working in the field of children's books who take three to six years to write each book. It's probably not a coincidence that they are among the best writers out there. Megan Whalen Turner is one, and, as Franny Billingsley proves with her long-awaited book Chime, she is another.

Is it horror? Is it fantasy? Is it a gothic novel set in a swamp? Well, yes. I think my first thought was Pride and Prejudice because of the banter between the two leads, plus the Victorian setting. But from there, this book might as well be set in the bayous of New Orleans, since the Swampsea is just that swampy. Alligators would feel right at home here. No, wait: actually, they'd get eaten by one of Billingsley's marvelous British folktale monsters, like the Boggy Mun or maybe Mucky Face.

But we really should talk about Briony...

She hates herself, especially for what she did to her sister Rose, who hasn't been quite right ever since. What's more, Briony is pretty sure she's a witch, since she can see the Old Ones, the nature spirits and other eldritch creatures who inhabit the Swampsea. If anyone finds out her secret, she will hang. Briony tries to be careful, but it doesn't help when the Boggy Mun sends a fatal coughing disease into the village. He promises Briony he'll withdraw the disease, but only if she can get Mr. Clayborne's crew to stop draining the swamp to build a railroad.

Meanwhile, Mr. Clayborne's son Eldric is staying at the vicarage, and he and Briony are instantly attracted to each other. Eldric has a good heart, but he's also a mischief-maker. He quickly sees the wildness in her that Briony has been trying to hide.

Cedric is sure he's in love with Briony, too, and a girl named Leanne starts getting her claws in Eldric. Briony can feel herself getting angry, and that's not good. When Briony gets angry, terrible things happen...

The best thing about this book is its characters, especially Briony. She is so vital and good and bad and full of self-doubt that she feels completely true as you are reading. Everywhere she turns, this girl faces a new dilemma, or rather, each time she tries to solve one problem, she seems to create a new one. Despite her stubborn strength, Briony is haunted to the point of being tormented.

Other characters are just as rich. Even the most peripheral ones manage to feel dimensional. The golden, leonine Eldric is such a wonderful combination of deviltry and kindness that readers will probably fall in love with him even as Briony does, especially when listening in on the conversations between this couple: you know, the kind of talk that leaves everyone else in the dark even as it illuminates just how perfectly in sync two people can be.

Briony's sister Rose is an intriguing character, as well. At first she seems to need Briony so desperately that we can pretty much understand why Briony sometimes chafes under the weight of this burden. On the other hand, Rose is fiercely loyal to Briony, and just because she is prone to screaming fits and other behaviors that are probably a mild form of autism doesn't mean she can't ever come through for her sister in her turn. You will surely smile, as I did, to see the way Rose frames every demand and request, small and large, like this one: "I prefer that you not talk."

We also get lovelorn and sometimes threatening Cedric, a father who may not be quite as distracted and unaware as he appears, an array of scary fairy critters in the swamp, the deceased (but still influential) Stepmother, and the titular Chime Child, an old woman (no, really) who weighs in on legal or social situations involving magic.

I've mentioned Briony, but not her voice, which is powerful and idiosyncratic, wry, self-deprecating, and very smart. Here are a few choice excerpts:
"Thank you." But why should I thank Pearl? She was being paid. Anyone could stand a screaming girl if she was paid, but the sister of such a girl is never paid. I'd like to go farther than twenty feet. France would be nice, and I speak tolerable French. Or Greece, although I speak intolerable Greek, and only ancient. But if I couldn't manage to order a glass of wine, I'd order a wine-dark sea; and I like olives; and I believe I might like squid; and I would certainly like anyplace far away from Rose.

The swamp slurped and swallowed. The stars rubbed out the Dreary-shaped space. Eldric shifted behind me; the tussock gasped and gurgled....
Mr. Dreary had vanished. Too late to pull him out. The false lights had vanished. Everything had vanished except Eldric and me. Everything had vanished except the two of us, the lantern, the stars, and the swamp, which breathed slowly through its jellied lungs....
The Wykes lured Mr. Dreary into the most treacherous part of the Quicks, where he fell and drowned. Where anyone would have drowned, unless he could walk on water, which I venture to say Mr. Dreary could not.
But I could not forget how the swamp slurped and swallowed. Those were not the sounds of falling.

Despite her cough, Rose was in unusually good spirits. That was irritating. If I'm to trade my life for Rose's, I'd appreciate her exhibiting a touch of melancholy. Also acceptable would be despair....
"I don't like my shoes," said Rose.
"I'm wearing my shoes and you don't see me complain."
"You only hear a person complain," said Rose. "Not see."
How has Rose lived for seventeen years and no one has ever killed her, not once?

Billingsley packs this book with twists and mysteries small and large. For example, Briony used to write the stories of the magical swamp creatures, but all of her stories were burned in a fire that also damaged one of her hands. Now the creatures beg Briony to write their stories again, but she refuses.

Some of the Swampfolk, like the Brownie, the Strangers, and the ghost-children, seem harmless, but others are lethal. More than one character runs afoul of the Dead Hand, a terrible thing that tears off people's hands and drags them deep beneath the dark waters of the swamp.

Little by little, readers will learn Briony's secrets, even as Eldric learns them. We discover that Briony is both an utterly reliable and an unreliable narrator. Gradually, her troubles take on surprising shapes, like newly made swamp creatures. Until pieces of the story that didn't seem to be connected suddenly clasp tentacles and feathers before showing us fresh, uncanny faces. I'll admit I guessed a villain or so early on, but not the why of it or how it actually made Briony the person that she is.

My sole quibble? The too-modern looking girl on the book cover—her lipstick, her mascara, and her American cheerleader face and 'tude. She feels so un-Briony to me! Briony should be wild and fine-featured, ghostly and bony, with a 'tude that speaks of mysteries and swamps, not malls and football players. (This would be a bit better, though still too prissy. Or if it has to be a photo, check out the cover art for Gretchen McNeil's Possess. Trees on interesting face, very cool!)

Ah, well. Everything else is superb. Along with its other delights, I should point out that Chime is beautifully crafted, its well-made language carrying you along like a small boat on a river of story. I'm betting you can't resist a book that starts out: "I've confessed to everything and I'd like to be hanged. Now, if you please."

Chime is one of those books that makes you astonishingly glad to be a reader. I'm very pleased to hear that it's garnering multiple starred reviews from key review sources. If it doesn't win the Printz or at least a Printz Honor award next year, I will Not Be Happy!

Also: If you haven't read any of the author's other books, I highly recommend The Folk Keeper. It's a little more middle grade, but another great read. And visit the Enchanted Inkpot to read a recent interview with Franny Billingsley.

Note for Worried Parents: Chime is a book for teens. There is talk about sex and having babies in spots, a threat of rape, and a trio of unforgettable flashers who are witches up in the trees of the swamp—one of the book's odder, funnier moments. We also get violence, especially in the form of attacks by nightmarish swamp creatures. And there are kisses, some more welcome than others.


Chachic said...

Thanks for the excellent review! This was reviewed and highly recommended by Ana of The Book Smugglers and I've already seen it in local bookstores. Was trying to decide if I should put off buying it but your review has convinced me to get it as soon as I can. It doesn't hurt that you mentioned MWT right at the start of your review. Any author compared to her deserves more attention.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you pointed out the decrepency of the cover, because the cover's the only thing that's really been keeping me away from this book. All you hear is raveraverave and starred-review-upon-starred-review, and I'm stuck on "But I don't FEEL like reading about that girl on that cover!" We all know, don't-judge-a-book-etc-etc, but STILL. Thank you for pointing out that the cover is WRONG and I should read it anyway!

Kate Coombs said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
storyqueen said...

I got an ARC of this from ALA and I fell in love with it. But I have to say I agree about the cover being misleading. I am not certain what the right cover for this book would look like, but it was kind of a cover/book mismatch for me.

An amazing story, told just the way the author wanted to tell it. These are my favorite kinds of books.


Kate Coombs said...

Chachic--You won't regret it, not one bit! And yes, I save the MWT comparison for special occasions... :)

Amy--It's really, really wrong, and you have GOT to read this book! (I've only felt this way about a cover once before. I drew my own cover to make myself feel better! That would be Sherwood Smith's A Stranger to Command, which made Shevraeth look like a lunk. I don't care if he was young and untried; he was never a lunk!)

What this actually tells you is that Briony is such a strong character for me that the cover issue stands out like a sore thumb. Kudos to Franny Billingsley for writing a wonderful MC!

Kate Coombs said...

Shelley--Isn't that weird how you can just KNOW about a cover? Everyone has their opinions, but sometimes a lot of people do feel the same way, which really says something.

So glad you loved the book, too! I like the idea that the story was "told just the way the author wanted to tell it." It's an idiosyncratic book in all the right ways, which I agree is all the more happy-making for us lucky readers.

Katherine Langrish said...

Yay, wonderful, thanks for reminding me I have to read this!

Kim Aippersbach said...

I hadn't heard of Franny Billingsley, so I'm excited to try her out. Thanks!

LinWash said...

My thoughts exactly on that Printz award. I just finished reading Chime. It definitely made me feel grateful that I'm a reader and that Franny is such a careful writer.

Kate Coombs said...

Katherine and Kim, you're in for a treat!

And LW, I'm glad you've already had the treat! That's a good way of putting it--"careful writer."

kathrynjankowski said...

I loved WELL-WISHED. This one sound intriguing, too. Thanks!

MonsterAteMy said...

I'm excited to read this (even more so after your review). I'm also glad to know I'm not the only one who doesn't like the cover. I am so SO tired of photographic covers. Is there an end to this trend in sight?

Kate Coombs said...

MAM--Oh, I'm sure you'll love it! And yes, I go to the YA section and ALL the book jackets look just the same, like rows of high school yearbook pictures. Bleah. It's clear publishers think the style has more appeal to actual teens, but still! (I wonder if they're really right about that--maybe not!)