Briony wants to be hanged. It’s not that she’s suicidal by nature; she just believes she deserves to die for who she is. After all, does not the Bible say, “Suffer not a witch to live?” From this ominous beginning, author Franny Billingsley weaves a mysterious and spellbinding tale of self-delusion, haunting evil, sacrificial loyalty, and true love. Using these diverse ingredients and an engaging narrative voice, Chime snares the reader from the first page and continues to captivate until the final, satisfying sentence.
Seventeen-year-old Briony has lived a lie for 10 years. On the surface, she is the upstanding daughter of the local clergyman. She faithfully cares for Rose, her mentally unstable twin sister. Yet in her heart Briony knows she is wicked and deserving of death. She didn’t ask to be born a witch and has never told another soul who she really is, but didn’t that terrible secret cause Rose’s madness? Didn’t her evil nature bring about her loving stepmother’s death?
Into Briony’s world of guilt and secrets steps Eldric, an older boy who first becomes her best friend and then something more, a boy who refuses to see the darkness she knows lives within her, even after she attempts to reveal to him her powers. Eldric fascinates and confuses Briony, for how could he possibly have feelings for someone like her, someone who is unlovable?
Briony’s life, along with the lives of all those living in the Swampsea, is complicated further by the mystical area that gives the region west of London its name. The Old Ones dwell in the swamp, and their interactions with the mortal world are a constant source of fear and danger for the villagers. Malevolent beings such as the Dead Hand creep through the area’s murky pathways, while the Wykes attempt to lure the foolish to their deaths in the Quicks. The only protection for those who enter the Old Ones’ realm is a Bible Ball, a scriptural talisman that repels evil.
But the Old Ones don’t always remain in the confines of the swamp. Witches roam at will and hide among the populace, while Dark Muses seek to suck out the lives of unsuspecting men whose talents they feed on. The Old Ones also don’t respond well to threats, and to stop the rising number of cases of the deadly swamp cough, brought on by plans to drain the swamp, Briony must make a deal with the Boggy Mun to somehow stop the drainage of his home from happening. Yet how can she do so without revealing to the village her true nature?
Thematically, Chime is a gold mine. For example, the idea of sacrificing yourself for the good of others weaves its way throughout the narrative and the lives of various characters, but finds its greatest focus in the actions of both Eldric and Briony. Remaining strong in the face of temptation also plays a role in the storyline as the sexual tension between the two main characters increases. But the theme that possibly exerts the greatest influence on the book is the one of overcoming the lies that seek to define us.
I once knew a boy who believed he was stupid. Friends, family, and even some of his teachers, over the 14 years of his young life, had hammered that idea home again and again. When he began to fail most of his classes in ninth grade, no one was surprised. After all, what could one expect from someone who was stupid? But the irony of the situation was that the boy wasn’t “stupid” at all. One day one of his teachers took the time to begin to chip away at the lies and show the boy who he really was. Soon his high marks on tests and assignments started to prove to himself and others that he was actually quite intelligent, even capable of getting the top grades in his class. Soon, the false beliefs that had so colored his life over the years began to fade away.
The lies that bind Briony keep her crippled emotionally, stunted in a way that she was never meant to be. The gradual peeling away of those untruths to reveal Briony’s true self mirrors the process that all young people must go through to develop a healthy self-image.
Despite the book’s thematic strengths, engaging storyline, and intriguing characters, Chime may present a few challenges for some Christian readers. For example, while there is the recognition that God’s power holds sway over evil, the use of portions of the Bible to make magical objects is hardly scriptural. Other supernatural elements in the book, such as the author’s presentation of ghosts, contrast sharply with biblical truths. However, when read simply as a story and not as a treatise on what one should believe about the spiritual world, Chime becomes an excellent addition to the world’s fantasy literature.
Image copyright Dial. Review copy obtained from the reviewer's local library.
John E. Roper, in addition to his role as a missionary/pastor/teacher in Africa, has written for USA Today, the Arizona Republic, the Daily Oklahoman, the US Review of Books, and more.
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