The Diviners by Libba Bray. Little, Brown, and Co., 2012. Currently Available.
Genre: Historical Paranormal Fiction
Face Value: This is a well-designed cover. Rather than showcasing one of the many characters and giving the impression that the book has a primary protagonist (which it doesn’t, really), the wisely-designed cover works to build the mood before you even open the book. The font and styling of graphics set the scene for the 1920s. A blurry old photograph of the New York skyline sets the eerie backdrop. And then there’s that unblinking eye. I actually love the eye. It is definitely creepy, but it is a bold cover choice. I felt like the book was watching me.
Does it break the slate? And how! Libba Bray has delivered not one, not two, but three (!!!) Slatebreaking ladies in this story. Actually, I may have missed a few there. There are several bold and decisive women who play smaller parts in the story that I didn’t include in my original count. I’m referring specifically to Margaret Walker – a character who plays a small but significant role in this story and who I’m sure we will see more if in future books. And that dreamwalking girl. We didn’t get to know her very well, but something tells me she’s a Slatebreaker. And let’s not forget the gentlemen. The guys in The Diviners do their fair share of Slatebreaking. Especially Henry. Henry has earned a very special place in my heart. I am dying with anticipation to know more about his past. Basically, Libba Bray went all out and packed the 578 pages of this book with characters that defy gender norms and are amazingly progressive given the era in which they live.
Who would we give it to? Anyone who likes a good things-that-bump-in-the-night story. This book will give you the heebie-jeebies. Any adolescent who feels out-of-place in their small town and dreams of big city life would also probably enjoy this story and find Evie to be a kindred spirit.
Review: Let me start by saying that I love this book. How I feel about this book is closely tied to the way I feel about Libba Bray. She is just amazing. She’s in a band called Tiger Beat with some other YA authors. (Evidence here and here.) She is also buddies with Maureen Johnson and let her move in during post-hurricane troubles. But most importantly, this is the woman who wrote Beauty Queens, Going Bovine, and the Gemma Doyle Trilogy. With the exception of the trilogy, each of these books was vastly different from its predecessor. She is an impressively versatile author. The Diviners continues in that vein, featuring a brilliant (and expansive) new cast of characters as well as a unique and vibrant setting that fuels the story.
The Diviners starts by focusing on Evie. She’s a flapper to the core, and her rebellious ways are not gelling with her small, conservative town. After an embarrassing incident of public drunkenness, her parents send her off to stay with her uncle in New York City. I don’t know what kind of parents think that sending their law-braking daughter off to NYC will keep her out of harm’s way, but they do it anyway. And thank goodness for that, because the background of NYC in the heat of prohibition and the roaring 1920s is crucial for the amazing story that unfolds.
Evie’s uncle is the curator and manager of The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult. So…he’s not exactly leading a run-of-the-mill life. Uncle Will is deeply entrenched in the supernatural. He’s not holding séances or anything, but he researches how people connect with other realms and why. Will’s uptight academic style clashes with Evie’s party girl sensibilities, and they get off to a rocky start.
Did I mention that Evie has special powers? Oh yes. She totally does. Evie knows that there’s something unusual about her ability to read a person’s past from his or her belongings. She uses it as a party trick, but she realizes that revealing the true depth of her abilities could get her into a great deal of trouble. But there’s something deep and magnetic about her special talents. Evie doesn’t know it, but her new NYC friends also have some paranormal talents that they are keeping secret.
Evie’s friends represent a range of the boldest, most progressive types roaming New York during the wild times of the 1920s. Her best friend Mabel is the daughter of socialist activists. Her new friend Theta is a Ziegfeld girl and a budding starlet. Theta’s love interest Memphis is a bookie and a poet. And her roommate Henry is a songwriter who is longing for the world to appreciate his talent. This just scratches the surface of characters that we meet in The Diviners. And although we spend just about a chapter at a time with each character, Bray writes these individuals in a way that makes a reader feel as if he or she knows the character intimately. The pace of the story is quick, which is exactly how I feel it should be when so many characters and sub stories come together into one powerful, climactic plot.
I love that Bray has given us characters who are so far ahead of their time. They are Slatebreakers because they have defied the numerous obstacles society builds for them and come out of their trials with confidence and grace. Theta survived brutal domestic, Memphis challenges racial boundaries, Evie pursues a redefined version of womanhood, and Henry pursues love in a culture that doesn’t accept his sexual orientation. Bray is showing us that even in the 1920s there were individuals who had to fight to fit in. YA readers who feel at odds in their own worlds will find comfort in these vibrant characters.
I am a fan of crime shows and mysteries, and even with my dulled response to fictional gore, I firmly declare that The Diviners is not a bedtime book. There is creepy ritualistic murder that will make your skin crawl. It’s not described in detail, but the character behind the killings is so slimy and awful and just mysterious enough to linger in your dreams after reading. Save this one for daylight reading if you want to sleep soundly.
The Diviners is the first of a trilogy. Libba Bray packed so much Slatebreaking goodness into this book. I can’t wait to see what she has in store for #2.
Reviewed from a copy purchased at Fireside Books in West Bend, WI.