Imagine a world where music is more than something you listen to, where music is the way that you find your way to places. Maps don’t exist and even if they did, would you remember how to read them without music to remind you how? Instead of moving quickly, you move presto. If time seems to slow, time goes lente. The world moves to the music in the most literal way that a society can manage.
Now imagine that on top of all that musical knowledge, there’s something wrong with the memories that people have. For some reason, they just won’t stay in people’s heads. Instead people carry around object memories, knick knacks that they’ve pressed their memories into and that they can hold onto so they don’t lose themselves.
In The Chimes by Anna Smaill we follow Simon, a recent orphan who falls in with a gang of thieves (of a sort) who are part of the Five Rover pact. He meets Lucien, the man with all the songs that the pact needs to function, who keeps them together by singing their way to and from their destinations. Our journey into the plot of The Chimes is less about significant events driving us forward than peeling back the layers of the world. Medieval in feel, we’re initially as muddled and confused as Simon must be about the world. As we travel with him to learn more about the world, watching as he struggles with his own weakness and memory, we start to get to the core of what’s happening to the people who are left and their unwillingness to push back.
As Simon learns “..is that people do not want to know the truth. You might think you are doing them a great favour to bring it to them. But even if you put it right on their doorstep, nobody will thank you for it. They’ll throw it away. Throw it in your face. Most people prefer to forget.”
The Chimes has a rhythm, a flow, all of its own and at first it can be jarring to try and read it. There’s a mental dance that we need to learn the steps to by learning the terminology that’s used in this new world. Simon narrates to us in a lyrical way, presto when he’s struggling with panic and then lento in those slow moments where the world becomes so piano that we hear our own breath echoing in our ears.
I was lucky that I had taken some musical theory when I was in school and for the most part, the terms came back to me naturally. Even harder can be the different words that are used to describe objects. The trick generally is to say the word aloud. It’s written as it phonetically sounds rather than how we would normally understand it to be written. So “metal” becomes “mettle” and we learn to speak like a pactrunner would.
Despite my picking on the confusing way that The Chimes is written, I cannot recommend it highly enough. It’s a beautiful world, one where things that should be discordant end up weaving together into harmonies and melodies that I want to hear explored and expanded on. A bold new world, queer representation, and a mystery that is perfectly paced throughout most of the novel should be enough to have most readers satisfied. Aside from a slight stumble when the theme shifts from intrigue to action, The Chimes is in my Top 5 for books I’ve read so far in 2017 and will remain as one of my favourite novels for years to come.