Book Learning: Chime by Franny Billingsley

Before Briony's stepmother died, she made sure Briony blamed herself for all the family's hardships. Now Briony has worn her guilt for so long it's become a second skin. She often escapes to the swamp, where she tells stories to the Old Ones, the spirits who haunt the marshes. But only witches can see the Old Ones, and in her village, witches are sentenced to death. Briony lives in fear her secret will be found out, even as she believes she deserves the worst kind of punishment. Then Eldric comes along with his golden lion eyes and mane of tawny hair. He's as natural as the sun, and treats her as if she's extraordinary. And everything starts to change. As many secrets as Briony has been holding, there are secrets even she doesn't know.
Overall Impressions: Chime really surprised me. I didn’t know what to expect, and was happy to discover that this book fits into one of my favorite genres: historical fantasy. The author, Franny Billingsley, is an absolutely amazing wordsmith, and the plot and characters were utterly original. In short, I loved this book.
Why I Read This Book: I got this in my recent library haul. Yay library!
Recommended for Writers Researching: Early twentieth century England, historical fantasy, witches, witch trials, stepmothers, absentee fathers, unconventional love stories, twin sisters, guilt.
Lessons Learned:
Break down the fourth wall.
The expression “breaking down the fourth wall” refers to the act of referencing oneself in art (for example, when an actor speaks directly to the audience or references the fact that he’s in a play. See: Clarissa Explains It All, The Office, and this clip from That Mitchell and Webb Look). There were several occasions when the main character, Briony, mentioned that, had she been a character in a book, things would go very differently for her. Some of these little references were incredibly hilarious, but they also made interesting, subtle commentary about the current state of YA. Billingsley understands YA and understands that, right now, within modern YA there exist certain character and plot clichés that her audience has been inundated with ad nauseam. This was kind of the author’s way of saying “Don’t worry, you haven’t read this book before.” The choice to break down the fourth wall was a unique and cheeky thing to do, and I loved it.
Write an original love interest.
For some reason, as soon as I read that the love interest’s name was Eldric, I got this image of the typical, gushy, clichéd paranormal love interest we’ve all read a thousand times (not to mention the fact that, in the synopsis, Eldric's described as having "golden lion eyes." Ew.). Well, as I learned, Eldric was actually a really wonderful, unique character. He’s a funny, clever, mischievous, self-deprecating guy you root for regardless of whether he and Briony ever get together. For a big part of the book, he’s not overtly interested in her romantically, and Briony’s thoughts aren’t on romance either. I’ve read so many romantic stories that seem to exist solely as a mechanism for conveying “will they/won’t they” tension. The love story in Chime is so much more realistic, more fun, and deeper than that.
Make the language funky.
By far my biggest reading pet peeve is when an author makes no attempt to make the language interesting. For me, story is only 50% of a book; the other 50% is language, and if the writing isn’t interesting, the book won’t be as satisfying for me. Well, I didn't have to worry about that in Chime. The language in this book complete charmed me. The writing was consistently inventive and fun, and some of the imagery and comparisons were so clever I found myself thinking “Man, I wish I’d thought of that one!” The author’s incredible grasp of language alone is enough to encourage me to check out her other books. But, on a side note...
Don’t over-do the funkiness.
The only caveat to having fun with language is that it’s essential to not go overboard with inventive descriptions. Honestly, it’s a fine line and something I’m constantly conscious of in my own writing, especially when I get on a roll with adjectives (I love me some adjectives). I thought this happened on a couple of occasions in Chime (though not often enough to really impact my opinion of the book). The problem with the excess of funky language is that, when the lily is so guilded, it’s difficult to even understand what’s being described. Because the language is so lush, it actually ends up tending toward imprecision and leaves a cloudy picture of what’s happening. But this was a small thing overall.
On a Side Note: In my opinion, the cover for this book completely misrepresents the book’s contents. Chime is a smart, quirky historical fantasy with a sarcastic, very capable female narrator, and I just don't see that reflected in the book cover. Based on the cover, it was very difficult for me to determine what genre this book fell into and what time period it took place in (last time I checked, they didn’t have Sephora in rural, turn of the century England). This kind of cover is really popular right now, but I don’t think a generic photo of a model is going to be an enduring brand for the author or the book. Still, I do applaud the cover designer for at least attemptingto inject some allusions to magic and the swamp—unfortunately those elements are not the focus of the cover. Thank goodness for blogs, because I probably wouldn’t have picked this up in a bookstore. It’s a pretty cover, but decidedly not the right cover for Chime (in my opinion!). 


What do you think of the cover? And, if you've read Chime, how did you like it?