Book Review: “The Bells” by Richard Harvell

Warning: If you have not read “The Bells” by Richard Harvell, don’t read this review if you don’t want spoilers!

I’m back with another book review, and this time it’s “The Bells” by Richard Harvell! Here’s a summary so we know what it’s about:

“The celebrated opera singer Lo Svizzero was born in a belfry high in the Swiss Alps where his mother served as the keeper of the loudest and most beautiful bells in the land. Shaped by the bells’ glorious music, as a boy he possessed an extraordinary gift for sound. But when his preternatural hearing was discovered—along with its power to expose the sins of the church—young Moses Froben was cast out of his village with only his ears to guide him in a world fraught with danger.

Rescued from certain death by two traveling monks, he finds refuge at the vast and powerful Abbey of St. Gall. There, his ears lead him through the ancient stone hallways and past the monks’ cells into the choir, where he aches to join the singers in their strange and enchanting song. Suddenly Moses knows his true gift, his purpose. Like his mother’s bells, he rings with sound and soon, he becomes the protégé of the Abbey’s brilliant yet repulsive choirmaster, Ulrich.

But it is this gift that will cause Moses’ greatest misfortune: determined to preserve his brilliant pupil’s voice, Ulrich has Moses castrated. Now a young man, he will forever sing with the exquisite voice of an angel—a musico—yet castration is an abomination in the Swiss Confederation, and so he must hide his shameful condition from his friends and even from the girl he has come to love. When his saviors are exiled and his beloved leaves St. Gall for an arranged marriage in Vienna, he decides he can deny the truth no longer and he follows her—to sumptuous Vienna, to the former monks who saved his life, to an apprenticeship at one of Europe’s greatest theaters, and to the premiere of one of history’s most beloved operas.  

In this confessional letter to his son, Moses recounts how his gift for sound led him on an astonishing journey to Europe’s celebrated opera houses and reveals the secret that has long shadowed his fame: How did Moses Froben, world renowned musico, come to raise a son who by all rights he never could have sired?”

Despite the summary above, I found that the main plot focused way too much on the romance between Moses and his love interest Amalia. I hoped that the plot would focus more on his struggles as castrated eventual-opera singer, but unfortunately the focus did not lie on that. Much of the plotline revolves around Moses wanting to be Amalia, and the forbidden love set between them due to their differing classes though also because he is castrated and therefore not considered a ‘man.’ What makes the main focus of the plot being on romance is worsened by the fact that Amalia and Moses have little chemistry throughout the book. I was unconvinced by the two characters being in love with each other, even close to the end of the book where Moses spirits her and her soon-to-be-born baby away from her family and first husband because she was unhappy in her marriage.

The description used in this book for the experiences Moses has throughout the book are very graphic, given his selective hearing, and it’s interesting to see how Moses reacts to them. It does get oddly creepy when he starts describing the sex he overhears others having as an adult, however. I also thought Moses’ plan to get Amalia and the baby in the end was flawed in the sense that 1. Amalia never really knew who he was when he was romancing her due to his insistence of her wearing a blindfold almost every time they met, and 2. It seemed unrealistic for her to notice him by his voice alone. Even if Moses was castrated and all, would that really be enough to imprint the memory of him in her mind after all the time they spent separate from each other?

A lot of the characters had little to no development, including Moses and Amalia, but my most favourite characters were Remus and Nicolai, who were the two people that were genuinely nice to Moses and actually looked out for him, even when it came to having their own safety at stake. It was fun to read the chemistry between Remus and Nicolai’s interactions, and I also liked the interactions they had with Moses together and individually as well.

The pacing of the book is unbalanced. It takes about a third of the book to get to the actual castration, due to the first third being exposition, the romance is rushed in the second third, and then the last third consists of tying up all the loose ends of whether Moses gets with Amalia or not, what happened with Nicolai and Remus after those two and Moses ended up leaving the abbey, etc. All of it was so rushed at the end that a lot of what happened felt too sudden or too conveniently coincidental.

Overall, 1.5 out of 5 stars.

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