The dystopian world in Anna Smaill’s The Chimes is set to music. In this indeterminate future London, where the written word is a lost code and metal is a precious commodity, Smaill’s characters walk lento and run presto, they sing directions, recognize strangers by their song, and they attune their ears daily to the Chimes, the beautiful music played across London that erases memories and keeps the inhabitants in line.
The novel follows young Simon, recently arrived in London after the death of his parents, with a bag of objectmemories and a message in the form of a song from his mother to a woman named Netty. As the days pass and the Chimes create gaps in his perception and fog his past, he must find a way to remember his purpose, deliver his message, and retain his memories if he is to survive the stifling by those in charge, a set of Oxford elites known as The Order.
After reading and loving V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series over the last few months, I’ve been on the hunt for entertaining, well-written fantasy, which is why I picked up The Chimes. While I liked the novel, I wished for less musical prose and more world-building; there were sections where I couldn’t envision the scene fully because the musicality of the writing muddled the plot and overshadowed the visual elements of the setting.
I don’t usually go for dystopian fiction. Oryx and Crake? Couldn’t get past page 30… In general, I just don’t love end-of-the-world hopelessness, desolate landscapes, and the constant fear that accompanies being one of the few survivors of an apocalyptic change, be it viral or chemical or other.
After so many recommendations and great reviews, however, I decided to pick up Station Eleven. Set in the lead-up and 20-year aftermath of a cataclysmic flu that wipes out much of Earth’s population, it follows various characters as they scatter and attempt to survive in the hours, days, and years after a performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear in Toronto.
In the years after the flu pandemic, we get visions of what the world is like from the perspective of Kirsten, one of the children in that production of King Lear in Toronto, who is now an adult player in a traveling symphony/theater that treks from one small enclave of survivors to another bringing music and Shakespearean theater. Post-pandemic, what used to be the U.S. is a place without electricity, planes, phones, the internet, without laws; cities are creepy monuments to a past civilization, full of skeletons, acres of abandoned cars on highways, looted stores and houses, and the echoes of half-realized lives. The visuals that Emily St. John Mandel creates of this world are memorable and terrifying, and it’s a fascinating, compulsive read.
The middle flagged a bit and I kept thinking move it along, move it along. I figured out the reveal pretty early on, and the ending was a bit too tidy and unrealistic for my taste, but overall I give it high marks for story, and character development… and for making me stay up, wide-eyed, two nights in a row imagining what it would be like to live in a Station Eleven world.