Review: The Diviners

The Diviners by Libba Bray. Little, Brown. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Series website.

The Post: New York City, 1926, is the best place in the world to be! At least, according to Evie O’Neill, who — get this — has been punished by her parents by being sent away from home to New York City to live with her Uncle Will. Evie can’t believe her good luck! Shopping, parties, speakeasies, the Ziegfeld Follies, what doesn’t New York have? Why, it didn’t have Evie O’Neill and now that Evie is there, she’s determined to stay, to shine, to leave her mark.

As for Uncle Will, yes, his museum is odd — the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult, aka the Museum of the Creepy Crawlies. And things get weird when Uncle Will is called in to consult on the murder of a girl not much older than Evie. It’s actually weirder than Uncle Will or anyone else knows, because Evie has a gift. Sometimes, when she picks up an object, she sees things about its owner. Discovering (and blabbing) about someone’s secrets discovered this way is what got her into trouble back home. Now her gift may bring her trouble of a different kind — it may help her find a killer.

Bodies pile up as the jazz plays on.

The Good: It’s Libba Bray; so, of course, The Diviners is something completely different from what she has done in the past.

The Diviners is a supernatural story set in the Roaring Twenties. Evie is the main character, yes; but she’s only one of the main characters. Once in New York, she meets her uncle’s assistant, Jericho, reunites with best friend, Mabel, becomes friends with Theta, a Ziefgeld Girl, and Theta’s roommate Henry; and crosses paths with a pickpocket, Sam. At the same time, we learn about Memphis, a numbers runner in Harlem. In a way, Bray is establishing a Team; but (since it’s Bray) it’s not as simple as bringing a Team together. Bray doesn’t do anything as expected as having these teenagers (and all of them are about seventeen years old) meeting and sharing their secrets with each other by page 110. Heck, it’s not even as simple as Evie and the others meeting each other; there are crossed paths and missed meetings. In other words, it’s a cast of characters who are unexpected and fresh and delicious, both in who they are but also in how they related to each other, even when they don’t know it.

The story being told in The Diviners is that of Naughty Jack; what the reader knows (but the characters don’t, more on that later) is that this serial killer is a spirit raised during a reckless OUIJA Board game. (True fact: OUIJA boards creep me out.) While The Diviners is first in a four book series, rest assured (and, sorry, I’m the type of reader who needs this assurance when I hear the word “series” so I assume so are you), it works as a standalone for the primary supernatural mystery while painting a broader world with bigger questions that are left to be explored in future books. In other words: perfect first book in a series.

The setting is 1926; and I am not a historian, but I am someone who reads a lot and looks things up and watches all sorts of movies and TV shows and documentaries. The Diviners is chock full of historical details, from clothes and music to slang and prejudices. Just one example — Zarephath, which some readers may read about and think “no way” or “not in New Jersey.” Yes way! Totally a real place and accurate history, and I love how it is woven seamlessly into The Diviners. Most of the story is set in New York City, and I got to the end and knew exactly what I wanted out of any series related website: information on the various places and people mentioned in the book along with a map to follow in the footsteps of Evie and crew.

One of the interesting things Bray does is that, while this is Evie’s story, it is told from multiple viewpoints. Because of this, from the start the reader has more information than Evie or any of the other characters. The characters don’t reveal all their secrets right away, not to each other, and not to Evie, and not even to the reader. Just when I thought I had more puzzle pieces than Evie so knew what was happening, something else was added. I was reminded (in a good way) of Stephen King. At times, I was waiting for Evie to catch up to what I knew, or wondering when she’d work something out, but just as often I was surprised by what had happened or where things were going.

Evie, Evie, Evie. Evie is an interesting girl, throwing herself boldly into the brave new world of the Jazz Age, embracing fashion, hairstyles, music, slang, and attitude. She pushes herself forward almost desperately; running to something because she is running away from something. She is running from her beloved brother’s death in the Great War; she is running from a family that mostly shut down after that death. She is also unsure of her own powers and what they mean, so hey, what better thing to do than find a party and dance and think just about the moment?

Because I loved every part of this book, from setting to characters to plot. Because Bray doesn’t do what a reader expects. Because of Evie. Because of the sheer fun and terror. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: Reading Rants; Teen Librarian’s Toolbox; SLJ’s review.


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