Skip to main content




A book about a girl finding out she's a witch is nothing new. After all, Harry Potter and his friends all found out, and they did just fine. Even Gemma Doyle learned how to deal with her magic. But even though CHIME may seem like it's just another story about a girl who's a witch, it's far different from any fantasy I've read recently. It's more character-driven, literary and inventive.

Let's start with the setting, which is as perfectly given to us as any regional Victorian novel by Hardy or Trevena. Briony, her twin sister Rose, and their father have just moved back to the Swampsea, where they live on an estate next to a large swamp that the townspeople are trying desperately to drain. Residents have a distinct dialect that's presented without being confusing or dumbed down.

The daughter of a pastor, Briony is expected to be pious and demure, but she would rather be a wolfgirl, running through the swamp all day and all night. Or she likes to go to the Alehouse with her new friend Eldric, a young man and scholar living with her family. To say the least, Briony is not your average turn-of-the-century girl you read about in novels. And neither is she your average turn-of-the-century girl you encounter in so many contemporary historical fiction works. She seems accurately out of place in her world, rather than clearly a product of the 21st century thrown into a different time.

CHIME begins in medias res, as the family moves back to the Swampsea. And the story continues that way; Briony's narration relays information to us as she thinks of it, rather than flashing back and giving a lengthy, awkward explanation. We learn what already happened before page one: Briony's stepmother died, and Briony feels guilty, though she doesn't quite know why. She also believes that her sister's mental condition is her fault, because she called up the spirit Mucky Face years ago and caused Rose to fall and hit her head. Now Rose is suffering from the swamp cough, and even though Briony promised her stepmother that she would try to stay away from the swamp, whose spirits tempt and taunt her, she knows she has to call up one spirit in particular if she wants to save her sister.

Struggling with her identities as witch and sister isn't all Briony has to do, though. There is also her relationship with Eldric, which shifts back and forth from friend to romantic interest. And even though she knows witches can't love, she finds herself jealous whenever Eldric seems interested in Leanne, a strange woman who's new in town.

CHIME may be historical fantasy, but Briony's story is a good metaphor for anyone who wants to know whether identity is something you choose or that is given to you. Her narration is so realistic, so stream of consciousness, that at times it's almost confusing, which is the book's only serious fault. We are so far inside Briony's thought process that sometimes author Franny Billingsley assumes we understand more than we do. All is tied up at the end, though, so even with this shortcoming, CHIME is still well worth a read.

Reviewed by Sarah Hannah Gómez on March 17, 2011

by Franny Billingsley

  • Publication Date: March 17, 2011
  • Genres: Historical Fantasy
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Dial
  • ISBN-10: 0803735529
  • ISBN-13: 9780803735521