Review: Historical Fiction · Review: Mystery · Review: Supernatural · Review: Teen Fiction

Book Review: The Diviners by Libba Bray

This is a dark supernatural mystery set in 1920s New York City. People are dying in gruesome ways throughout the city. Evie, a resourceful, silver-tongued girl with a secret power from Nowhere, Ohio, has been sent to live with her uncle Will as “punishment.” It’s the best punishment her parents could possibly have devised, and Evie spends her time getting to know the city and its people. But when a police friend of Uncle Will’s visits to ask his help on a case, Evie knows that she can use her secret powers to help solve the case, if only she could get her hands on the victims’ possessions…

The first thing that struck me about this book was the writing. I’m not a fan of the introductory-chapter-with-characters-we-don’t-really-care-about style, but I understand its purpose, so it doesn’t put me off at all. As I started the first chapter, the writing made it obvious to me that these were not our main characters. I waded through, understanding that it was trying to create a mood but not feeling particularly compelled. (Arguably, since this chapter is about how a group of teens summon a spirit called Naughty John with an ouija board and forget to dismiss him at the end thus allowing him to walk free and begin murdering folk, this could be considered necessary. But I got the impression as I went through the book that the story could have proceeded just fine without this scene.)

Sure enough, in the next chapter, there were a new set of characters. And within a few pages, I was drawn into these characters and their world. Mostly, this is because Evie is an absolutely compelling main character. She is outgoing, brazen, confident, and willing to manipulate ruthlessly to get what she wants. She seemed to be, in essence, a teenaged Phryne Fisher, right down to the scheming to be included in the investigation of a mystery, in spite of her uncle’s best efforts to keep her away. This worked very well for me.

Also working perfectly for me was the way that the first few pages set up everything from Evie’s powers to her personality and how she gets shipped off to New York. It was fast-paced, compelling writing, and I never felt fatigued by the volume of information. If I were to get nitpicking, I would question her parents’ obliviousness to Evie’s desire to go to New York; but since this is a young adult novel and Evie has a difficult relationship with her mother, I can imagine that the mother was willfully ignoring speculating about Evie’s feelings to get her out of the house and the father was either in similar mind to the mother, or putting on a facade just like Evie.

The cast of characters is rich and diverse, and everyone has a fairly distinct personality as well as a subplot or two. Many of them appear to be stereotypes, but I would argue that if there were a way to make those stereotypes work as well-rounded characters, then Libba Bray would be the author to find it. There is Evie’s timid best friend, Mabel, who has an inferiority complex in her activist mother’s shadow, and an enormous crush on the silent, stoic Jericho, who is assistant to Evie’s Uncle Will. Uncle Will is a no-nonsense, sensible sort of guardian who doesn’t know how to parent a teenage girl and gives Evie a great deal of freedom, to her delight. Evie gets into an ongoing argument with a con artist, Sam, and befriends Mabel’s neighbors, Theta and Henry, who live together and say they are brother and sister while others speculate on the true nature of their relationship. As it happens, they are entirely platonic best friends, each with their own secrets and story. Then there is Memphis, a runner who wants to write poetry. There are also any number of characters—a few elderly ladies, a sister and others—who talk knowingly of the Diviners and speculate on which characters among the cast are one of them.

The main plot is about a series of murders. The first victim is a girl found with her eyes  missing; then a boy found with his hands missing. Uncle Will has a friend in the police force, who comes to him for help because Uncle Will curates The Museum of Folklore, Superstition and the Occults. Jericho and Uncle Will pour over the symbolism even as Evie debates whether to let on that she has powers that allow her to know things that no one else could.

This is extremely well written, and an endlessly compelling page-turner. Much to my relief, Evie is far from a stale, perfect character: she makes several mistakes (though those are mostly in her disregard for other people and their feelings rather than anything directly related to the plot), and I look forward to seeing how she grows and changes in future volumes. I also found myself, as I finished the book, disappointed that I had not gotten much time with some of the other characters, which compels me to reach for the sequel more than any cliff-hanger would.

Furthermore, though this is the start of a series, it does not end on a cliff-hanger. The story of the serial killer and Naughty John are wrapped up in a very satisfactory fashion, with the loose threads being compelling, but not in a way that would make this book feel lacking as a whole.

I highly recommend this book.

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