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It's spring! My eyes are itching like crazy and yesterday I met a black fly. I'm revising my first draft, alternately singing and sighing. And yet, I read. It's a sickness.
Don't forget to click the icon to find the rest of the May reviews!
By Franny Billingsley
Penguin/Dial Books for Young Readers
I had no intention of ever reviewing this book, nor do I have any business reviewing it now. Franny Billingsley and I have the same editor, the miraculous Kathy Dawson at Dial Books for Young Readers. Kathy’s assistant, Claire Evans, sent CHIME to me out of the blue when I innocently (really! I swear!) said I was looking forward to reading it.
I'm totally prejudiced, but I can’t help myself. This book is marvelous. So sue me, FCC.
YA fantasy is choked with stories of girls coming to grips with their powers and fighting off evil. The one big difference here is the narrator’s voice—well, everyone’s voice. Oh, and the utterly original collection of supernatural elements. And the characters, who are quirky yet human, plus the setting, which is eerie and gorgeous.
“Rich” was the word that kept coming to mind as I read. Also “sepia.” Atmosphere is everything in this book. If you don’t count voice and characters and story and setting and supernatural elements.
Okay, let’s just say it’s the writing.
“The wind smacked at everything. It smacked the river into froth. It smacked the willow branches into whips. It smacked the villagers into streamers of hair and shawls and shirttails. The wind didn’t smack us up, though, not the Larkin family. We were buttoned and braided and buckled and still.”
The narrator is Briony, one of the lovely twin daughters of a village clergyman at a time when railroads are laying claim to the English countryside. She’s funny, depressed, smart, self-deprecating, honest and totally deluded.
“Adults tend to view me as being mature beyond my years. I think it has partly to do with being a clergyman’s daughter, partly to do with looking after Rose, and partly to do with being rather clever. But I can’t take any credit; I’m stuck with all of it.”
Briony hates herself. She believes she is a witch, evil enough to have damaged her beloved twin’s brain and enabled her beloved stepmother’s death. At seventeen, she has sentenced herself to a lifetime of taking care of Rose, her gently addled sister, and never, ever being happy.
“Rose hates any bit of clothing that constricts, but I say, Chin up and bear it. Life is just one big constriction.”
Briony lives in the town of Swampsea, next to a swamp governed by the Old Ones: spirits who, like nature itself, can kill you if you cross them. There are Horrors and Reed Spirits and the Dead Hand, all intent on dragging the foolish wanderer under the muck. There are Dark Muses, who feed on a man’s talents until he’s drained to death. There’s the Boggy Mun, whose anger at the railroad’s plans to drain his swamp has inflicted the town with “swamp cough.”
Into this dank life comes Eldric, a failed college student whose father plants him at the parsonage to settle him down. Eldric is lively, funny, and fashionable, not the irascible Briony’s type at all. And yet she is drawn to him, and apparently he to her. Their relationship, with its humor and shocks and life-changing effects, is a bright thread in the darkness.
“If I could love anything, I’d love the swamp,” Briony says. She stays away from it because she alone can hear the Old Ones, and letting anyone know about that gift could get her hanged as the witch she knows she is. But she’s compelled to return when Rose contracts the swamp cough, making a perilous bargain with the Boggy Mun that could end up at the gallows.
The plot twists off from there, and by the end it’s the characters and the reader who are drained, not the swamp. I don’t have time to read it again but I’m going to. I’d suggest you read it, too.
A word on the cover: Gorgeous design, perfect model. Too much make-up and hair product, though. Briony spent her childhood tramping the swamp, earning the nickname “wolfgirl.” She would not wear eye-liner. And I can tell you from personal experience: Hair product is murder in a buggy swamp.