Anna Smaill’s debut fantasy novel The Chimes won the World Fantasy Award in 2016. It became available in the USA in 2017. The Chimes is a dark and beautiful fantasy that is filled with music.
After the death of his parents, Sebastian leaves his home and travels to London. His mother has sent him, with her dying words, to find a woman named Molly. Sebastian has the clothes on his back and a knapsack filled with objectmemories. These objectmemories are important, because in Sebastian’s world, each day is just like the last, and every night when they sleep, people leave behind their memories. Every morning, the melody rings that through the world, Onestory, returns certain memories to people, and at vespers the Chimes plays, a majestic piece of music that seems to remove the memories of the day. For people in Sebastian’s world, memories, stories, and words are distrusted, because they bring discord. Through the use of the Carillon, the Order protects people from discord by relying almost completely on music. People do speak, but directions and instruction is sung or whistled, and the populace follow the call-and-response of Onestory with the hand-signing solfege. People are allowed to ground a memory in an object — it can be any object, a cup, a figurine, a stone, and contemplate that memory, but basically life is day-to-day, and anything else is called “Blasphony.”
When Sebastian finds Molly in London, she asks him a question he cannot answer, and she refuses to help him. Through the wild melodic overture that is the marketplace Sebastian finds a thread of a song and follows it, and it leads him to Lucien, a mudlark leader who searches the shores of a Thames for a particular metal, one he calls the Pale Lady. Like his mother, Sebastian is different, and soon his gift reveals itself. Lucien and Sebastian begin to question what they know, and soon they set out on a journey to Oxford to confront the Order.
Smaill is quick to show us in The Chimes that certain memories remain; certainly there is muscle memory; recollection of your own name and the names of those around you come back to people in the early morning, and of course there are objectmemories. It does seem that certain things make it into long term memory; Sebastian remembers where he grew up, his parents’ names, and so on. He does not remember his trip to London or his meeting for Molly for a long time; and it only does return to him because of his unique ability. People know that their memories have been suppressed, and they have accepted it, because they believe it is for the best, because the Order is so powerful, and because the magic of the Carillon is nearly irresistible.
This is an unusual, vividly described world, and the relationship between Sebastian and Lucien is tender and fraught with tension, especially when Sebastian figures out that Lucien has memories of conversations with Sebastian that Sebastian does not. The revelation of Lucien’s background is well-done. The use of a nursery rhyme and the theme of the ravens in the tower (Hugin and Munin are two names that recur) adds a layer of mythic depth to the story. Music has been turned to an evil use in The Chimes, but Smaill clearly loves music, and so it weaves perfectly into this tale; we are like the people of this world, dependent upon the music.
Smaill also employs a poet’s eye for image to draw us into the story: the images of ruined London in the wake of an apparently civil war; groups of people in the morning, using the solfege handsigns to sign along with Onestory; the glimmer of the Pale Lady among the mud and muck of the Thames. These descriptions, which go beyond auditory, make this world believable.
About three-quarters of the way through the book I said to myself, “Well, fine, I guess there just won’t be any important woman characters who aren’t dead.” Then in the final twenty-five percent of the book, a woman appears who not only has an intense relationship with Lucien, but whose actions have consequences for everyone around her. It just took her a while to show up.
While it is more immediately accessible than Riddley Walker, one of my favorite post-apocalyptic fantasies, The Chimes reminded me of that book, probably due to the degree of immersion into this world through the language. Musical terms have made their way into incidental speech. To speak piano is to speak softly. Someone may go lento (slow) down to the waterfront. People hum and whistle and use solfege to hawk their wares, register grievances, or give directions. Against this backdrop, Lucien and Sebastian meet the obligatory cast of eccentric characters on their way to Oxford, where they confront the Order.
I’m going to indulge myself by sharing the opening paragraphs of the book here:
I’ve been standing here forever. My arms and legs and head and even my bones are heavy with sleep. Clothes heavy with the rain that won’t stop falling. Shoes heavy with mud. My roughcloth bag is slung over my shoulder and it jostles against my leg as I shift from side to side to keep warm. It’s heavy too, weighted with objectmemories. The ones I’ve decided to take.
Deep in the drilled-in mud of the fields behind me, our bulbs are wrapped in their brittle skins with their messages of color stored inside. Blue iris, yellow crocus, tulips of all colors. Daffs with the flowers in their papery bunches and their smell of pepper like the air as it is before Chimes.
I did have a problem with the world-building, and if I could give a book 4.75 stars instead of 5, I probably would. What I did not know and could not figure out in The Chimes is whether this phenomenon was world-wide, nationwide, or regional. It seems like the most the Carillon could affect would be Britain. This nagged at me in the final pages of the book, particularly. I loved the idea, the language, and the music so much that I decided this glitch is not worth a half-star ding. This book left me thinking about memory (and the mathematics of music) for several days after I finished it, and it’s beautiful. I highly recommend it.