Musical Confusion in The Chimes || BOOK REVIEW

The Chimes by Anna Smaill


Genre: Fantasy (alternate world)
Author: Anna Smaill
Published: February 2015
Publisher: Sceptre
Pages: 291 {paperback}

Originally posted on Goodreads

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this review is spoiler-free until I state otherwise

Initial Thoughts Upon Finishing

I can’t say I really know what to make of this. It started horrendously slow, then got amazingly good in the middle before ending in what I can only describe as a disappointing deflation of plot lines. I had really high hopes for this book as it had such a unique premise but GAH. The ending has let me down so badly. I must think on this one – it was good but also a major confuddlement.

September 2017 Book of the Month for book club: Squabbling Dragons

The Chimes

Well. Here we are. We have reached the point where I am able to try and review this for you. This book is infinitely confusing to read but at the end of the day more or less simple to describe to you. The Chimes follows a boy called Simon who lives in an alternate London. In this world, no-one can remember anything beyond maybe a couple of days. There is a musical instrument called “The Chimes” (didn’t see THAT coming did you?) and when it plays out at a set time each day, its sound carries all over England, I presume, wiping the memories of its people and creating a world where people are controlled in what they do because they can’t think to do anything other than what they normally do.

The erasing of memory leaves them only with “bodymemory” — something you might like to refer to as more or less muscle memory. The type of memory your body just knows, like the way you can just play a song on the piano and simply know what note comes next. This is what the people in this world know they can do and what reminds them of who they are. It’s a horrific idea when you really think of it, being unable to remember your life.

Another element to this story is that people can infuse memories into physical objects to keep them. Everyone carries around a sack of bric-a-brac that holds their most important memories. It adds a deeper meaning to the repeated phrase, “keep your memories close”.

Simon is sent into London from Essex by his mother who has now died on a mission. He’s to meet a woman called Netty. Upon getting to London and being faced with the proximity to The Chimes he can’t remember what he needs to do. After initially finding Netty but not being able to explain to her who he is, he finds himself on the Thames and meeting up with a group of teenagers.

Lucien is the boy who runs this ragtag team of memory-addled ruffians and Simon finds solace here in the routinely adventures of the Pact. The Pact is their official name as they are “pactrunners”. In this world (there are honestly so many elements, sheesh), these pactrunners illegally collect metal fragments called “The Lady” (a confusing name that had me thinking for the first 100 pages that there were running through rivers trying to find an actual lady) which they essentially sell illegally and thus make their money.

It’s a comfortable lifestyle in a world that robs you of your true identity. EXCEPT — and here’s the plot — Simon is no ordinary person. He has a stronger memory than most. Thus, the story follows him and Lucien (well, after 150 pages of waffle) as they make it their mission to stop Chimes and bring people back their lives and memories.

Confounding Plots

It sounds like such a good plot BUT GOOD LORD MY POOR BRAIN. This book, by page 15, is impossibly confusing to keep up with. Smaill has substituted a lot of words, such as “slow”, “fast”, “suddenly” and so on with musical terms. Thankfully, being a piano player myself and able to speak Italian, this did not phase me. But take the everyday person who has not acquired such a random combination of skills as I and that’s just bloody confusing.

Nonetheless, despite being able to effectively translate the substitutions it’s an odd thing to have done and I felt it didn’t actually add to the story. Whilst each character has a heightened knowledge of the musical world, I think the substituted words could have been left out and that not have been a problem.

Speaking of, everyone is singing a lot. People sing melodies to each other to help them remember directions or even actual people. I found this hard to imagine, I can never imagine people singing, although I liked it and thought it fitting. That, along with the fact that Simon notes rhythms in everything from the pace of daily activities to someone’s footfalls as they run, and that was awesome.

What Smaill has done is incredibly clever. As much as I want to bang this book down for being an acquired taste that’s been given to an audience maybe not quite ready for it — like a dry wine to a teenager, you could say — I can’t believe how insanely clever Smaill is to have actually pulled it off. YES, it’s hard to follow, YES, it’s confusing, YES, I wanted to put it down to massage my headaches sometimes, but the story works. Invest your time in this book and you’ll find it to be good.

So. Pages 1-150 set the story. They’re slow, very confusing and will have you at a loss as to where the book is heading. But, pages 150-260 are SO GOOD. There is an LGBT+ relationship in this story and it’s incredible. I will tell you it is between Simon and Lucien and I would recommend this book based off that alone. But more on that in a second. Where this book falls down is its ending: it’s disappointing. Having built up from eh to ohmygodmyheart the book goes out is a fizzle. That was what made it sit at an unhappy three for me, rather than a particularly pleased four.

The Best Romance Ever

This relationship between Simon and Lucien is spine-tinglingly good. I place it as my third favourite LGBT+ romance of all time. This comes after number one: Simon + Baz in Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, and number two: the relationship in Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (that I can’t say for spoilers). So you could say I rate Smaill’s work here on creating one of the best and most believable romances ever pretty high.

It’s so natural, so unexpected and expected all at once and is packed with sexual tension that I’d expect nothing less than for you to scream JUST KISS ALREADY at least three times. Oh, and can we talk about the kiss scenes in a non-spoilery way? THEY WERE GOOD. Oh my lord, my heart bled with happiness seeing these two together. Smaill, my god, please write us more pairings like this. It’s perfect, like I can’t. The feels were so real and I loved every second of those boys together.

“Give me your weight,” he says.
I push back again behind me, pray he’s strong enough to take it, and kick free. Then Lucien is gripping me by the chest and I’m half over his back and falling for a moment. Then I’m down and my feet on flat ground and I’m standing close to him, both of us breathing hard.”


As I said before, I would highly recommend this book purely so that you can experience how well-written this relationship is. It’s rewarding to read and follow their journey and if you take nothing else from the story, this will still stick with you.

A Necessary and Brief Discussion of Spoilers




The plot was very intriguing. I had high hopes although I was never sure exactly how Smaill was going to tackle the resolution to the story. Ultimately, I was disappointed. It was not a genial ending that blew me away, but more like something my own brain would have guessed at how it could end being unable to come up with anything better.

But let’s go back. I think it’s clear from the beginning that Simon is going to do something special. So once we break through the slow-moving section of the plot and get onto Lucien’s journey with Simon to save the world things got better.

Whilst I found the tunnel-running a little weird and hard to imagine — I mean, surely they all have gangrene from spending their days pruning their toes in dirty waters? — I thought it was cool. I would have loved, however, for there to be more focus on the “keep your memories” close thing. That seemed like it was going to be something more than it was. I also really wanted to explore more of Callum’s daughter’s life living as a deaf person in a world dictated by music. Simon’s questions about whether she is affected like everyone else being deaf would spare her the full effect of Chimes. I’d love to know!

The meeting with the crazy lady, Mary, was interesting. It was deepening the plot and we were able to learn more about the world before Chimes and the evil that is the order. But things went downhill from there. The metal tunnel? Never really comes into play. There are so many introduced plot points that weren’t necessary in the end.

The Order is never explicitly revealed as evil. This bothered me. They clearly are, we have proof of what they’re doing. But in the final scenes when Lucien is trying to manipulate Chimes into revealing the truth about the past, there is no good vs. evil battle that clearly defines the Order as the veritable issue and villain of the book. I honestly think the book desperately needed that.

Doubled on top of that, the fact that Lucien didn’t die and his sister SOMEHOW managed to get up to Chimes and play it herself was very hard to believe. We’re never told, unless I totally missed it being quite confused at this point, how Lucien escaped. Sonja’s sacrifice was meaningless, being a character we are unfamiliar with, and I think this book would have been better with the sacrifice of Lucien. Although, ultimately I’m glad he and Simon can be together. Oh! The woes of literature!


There we have it. These are my jumbled thoughts on this baffling book. I wish it had been a little better because this is a very clever book. Whilst I had my doubts about it claiming to be a longlister for the Man Book Prize by the end of it I can understand why it was picked up for that prize. It’s incredible with what it has achieved but for me it fell a little short.

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Have you read The Chimes?

What did you think?

Happy Reading

~~ Kirstie ~~


3 thoughts on “Musical Confusion in The Chimes || BOOK REVIEW

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