What You Need to Know: This beautifully written steampunkish fairy tale is an antidote to cookie cutter supernatural romances, and one of my best books of 2011.
Summary: Briony Larkin is 17 years old and a witch. She knows that she is evil; responsible for her sister Rose's mental difficulties. However, she must care for Rose and that means keeping her ability to hear the Old Ones a secret. The Old Ones call to Briony, and beg her to tell their stories.
But the world is changing, and engineers plan to drain the swamp. This angers the Old Ones, and in retaliation, the children of Swampsea are stricken with a deadly cough. When Rose takes ill, Briony knows she must do whatever it takes to save her. Adding to Briony's troubles is Larkin, the charming son of the an engineer, who is determined to puzzle out Briony's secrets.
What Worked: Billingsley is one of the most engaging and skillful writers I have ever read. This book is all about journey -- there are no real surprises here. However, Billingsley takes familiar tropes and skews them, twisting her story so that plot is secondary to the rich world building and vibrant characterizations. Swampsea, like Lyra's Jordan, is a world just left of our own, where magic is real and modernity bumps up uncomfortably against the old ways. The Old Ones of the Swamp, with few exceptions, are dangerous, but not sinister, and Briony's connection to them seems organic and real. Briony herself is one of the most fully realized characters I've come across. Unlike many heroines, she is not inhumanly perfect, not a blank Mary Sue, but a real girl, in extraordinary circumstances, trying to do the right thing. The supporting cast is equally well drawn, from the perplexing Rose to the engaging boy-man Larkin. Briony and Larkin's romance is sweet and believable, not fairy tale perfect.
The first word that pops to mind when discussing Chime is beautiful. Beautiful language, beautiful setting, beautiful story.
What Didn't: It's hard for me to find a flaw here. I do think that the cover of the book fails to do it justice, as the blandly pretty goth-child pictured here comes nowhere close to embodying Briony's spirit and passion.
P.S. -- I read this book in ARC, and then listened to the audiobook with my daughter. In someways, the audiobook is superior to the novel, as Susan Duerden does a masterful reading, and brings Billingsley's language to life.