The Chimes by Anna Smaill

It’s coming up to Spring, which means it’s time for us to choose a new theme each! This season, each of us is going to be exploring magical systems based on different principles — I will be reading stories about magic based on music, whereas Rachel will be exploring magic based on food. We each have some amazing books lined up, and can’t wait to talk about them!

thechimesChimes is always different, and even after the thousands of times, I couldn’t venture to explain what it’s like.
It’s the melody simple first. We follow in solfege. Hands in concert as the sky is carved by it: Soh Fah Me Doh Ray Me Soh Fah Me Me Ray Doh Doh Soh Soh. The the melody is repeated, but turned upside down. Then it comes again, but up an octave and another voice takes the inverted melody and they weave together. The chords wash over. They clean and centre me. The weight of the tonic goes down my spine and into the ground.
There is no space for any other thought.

Simon Wythern has come to London following instructions from his mother, who has recently died. But this isn’t a London we would recognise — everything is music. Every object plays a tune, people communicate in music, and playing an instrument is the most highly prized skill. Orchestrating it all is a giant instrument called The Carillion, and every night, The Chimes play, filling the air with deafening music and destroying the memories of those who listen.

Simon falls in with a group of river scavengers led by the enigmatic Lucien. Together they eke out an existence by finding pieces of what they call ‘The Pale Lady’ — the precious metal Palladium — and selling them to traders in return for the money to buy food. But Lucien is more than he seems, because not only is he able to help Simon piece his memories back together, but he’s also on the run from sinister men who want to kill him.

This is quite a setup for a story, and it’s a setup that ends up giving the worldbuilding more space than the plot. I didn’t mind this at all — I really loved the small touches which showed the social effects of a world where memory cannot be taken for granted. For example, there is an underclass, the ‘memorylost’, who have forgotten everything and live, destitute, on the streets. At the other end of the scale are the elites, who remember everything, and talk about the poor as if they would recover if only they applied themselves.

Simon is somewhere in the middle. He has a gift, which is that he can see the memories that are attached to objects. He can’t always remember the context for each memory, but we (the readers) can use them to piece together Simon’s life when he can’t. And because the narration is in the first person, it is often eerily repetitive, as Simon unwittingly tells the same parts of his life in the same way, from day to day. It is also completely packed with musical terms and metaphors, not surprising since music is the driving force of Simon’s life.

If you strip away the incredible setting, the plot is extremely simple, as Simon and Lucien join forces to overthrow the dystopian overlords, with a sweet romance on the way. However, it is the setting, the combination of the beautiful music with post-nuclear grime, and the exploration of memory, that really lift this book above any other dystopian YA stories.

The Chimes is available from Amazon.

3 thoughts on “The Chimes by Anna Smaill

  1. Thanks for the link to this, Joanna! Yes, a really interesting and challenging setting. I was interested by your comment, almost in passing in the last line, that you thought it was YA. Is this how it’s marketed? I ask because I didn’t know, and I didn’t get that flavour to it at all. And yes, the romance element was sweet, wasn’t it? I wasn’t expecting that at all but it gave an extra level of interest to it all. I wonder if Smaill does have any plans for a sequel? She could so easily turn this into a series and, in the current publishing climate where everyone is eager for multiple-book deals, I’d be very surprised if she doesn’t take advantage of that, especially considering the success of the first.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for commenting! My point about YA is that (as far as I can tell) it wasn’t marketed as that at all, and yet the protagonists are young, the plot is partially about a first love, and the dystopian setting is so common in YA right now, so it could easily have been. And yet it was long listed for the Man Booker! I guess I was interested in the things about this book that make it ‘literary fiction’ rather than ‘YA’ or even ‘Fantasy’ — I think it’s the writing style, but I’d be interested to know what you think!

      I’m not sure about a sequel. One of the things that comes with reading a lot of SF&F is that you read a lot of trilogies! And it is extremely common to have book 1: interesting story set in a dystopian society, books 2 & 3: take down that society somehow. In these cases I almost always wish I’d stopped reading after book 1! As a result, in general I’m a big fan of standalone SF&F books, because not every story needs three books to tell (but as you say, in the current publishing climate that’s what we have — although since this wasn’t marketed as Fantasy I guess this format is less likely to be the default). In a way it’s a shame to let the worldbuilding go to waste by only setting one book in the world, but I didn’t think the plot was the book’s strength, and for a good sequel I think it would need to have been planned out from the start in order to be any good. So again, this is an interesting book in terms of marketing — it’s clearly a fantasy book, but not labelled as such, and if it was I think sequels would be inevitable, but I’m glad it’s a standalone!

      Liked by 1 person

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