The Diviners–Libba Bray (2012)

Bray, Libba.  The Diviners.  Little, Brown, 2012.  578p.  Grades 6-12.  Historical Fiction/Fantasy. 

Dreaming of being a flapper and roaming the bustling streets of Roaring Twenties’ New York City, Evie O’Neill is elated to find herself “exiled” from boring Zenith, Ohio.  Upon her arrival in the Big Apple, she promptly has her pocket picked and finds herself on the doorstep of her uncle’s museum—the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult, aka “The Museum of the Creepy Crawlies.”  Thrilled to be reunited with her longtime pen pal Mabel, Evie is less than thrilled about her living situation with stodgy Uncle Will and his strange assistant Jericho…that is, until she gets swept into the middle of a serial killer investigation where her unusual “abilities” (ie. supernatural powers) factor heavily into the nature of the crime.  Equal parts murder mystery, historical novel, and ghost story, the first entry in Bray’s Diviners series richly evokes 1920s New York and sets up a sprawling epic story to come.

Thoughts- This was the most difficult annotation I’ve ever written simply because condensing The Diviners down to one paragraph was practically impossible.  Bray’s novel is incredibly sprawling and contains more sub-plots, characters, and research than anything else I’ve read in recent memory.  It is an immense book that simultaneously wraps the reader in a fascinating (and, in my opinion, well-concluded) murder mystery/ghost story AND sets up an entire four book series.  All of the hallmarks of Bray’s outstanding writing are here—fantastic world-building, multi-faceted characters that just jump off the page and into your heart, whip-smart dialogue, and that always-winking ironic twinkle in her narrative prose.  Admittedly, The Diviners starts slowly (something I find to also be characteristic of Bray’s writing) and the use of 1920s lingo can grate on the nerves.  To me, though, these flaws are greatly outweighed by the strength of the narrative that keeps you reading compulsively FOR 578 PAGES (!) and the depth of characterization that makes these possibly antiquated characters seem authentic and contemporary.

So why did I keep turning all those pages?  For starters, the world-building.  It is flawless.  Bray obviously did her research not just on the physical space of New York City in the 1920s but also on the current events of the time, the history of religion in early 20th century America, and the racial politics brewing across the country.  Next, the characters.  There are SO MANY characters in this book and somehow every single one of them seems like an actual person and not just a two-dimensional placeholder.  Although Evie is the main character, the reader is also introduced to other “diviners” in the city like Memphis, Theta, and Sam as well as Evie’s Uncle Will, best friend Mabel, Will’s bizarre assistant Jericho, and the evil, evil ghost Naughty John.  I found each of the characters distinct and finely drawn, and I hope to find out more about them all (except that freaky ghost!) in books to come.  Finally, my favorite thing about The Diviners and, honestly, about all of Bray’s books is the humor and irony found in the dialogue and narration.  Not only do her characters each have their own distinct voice and humor but the actual narration is funny as well…not a lot of authors manage that.

As for the criticism of the pacing, length, and overuse of lingo—I think those are legitimate concerns.  The book IS slow to start and very, very long.  For me, that slow-to-build pace worked as did the complexity of the narrative.  The length won’t shock teen readers familiar with fantasy, and I think they’ll appreciate that Bray’s not dumbing down her story for anyone.  The most common complaint I’ve read/heard about The Diviners is the language, and I’ve heard it A LOT.  Here’s my take on it—the character that most frequently uses those flapper-isms is Evie, and her use of them (and Bray’s) is purposeful.  Quite simply, she is trying to create a new persona for herself.  Evie is trying to be the carefree, Daisy Buchanan-esque creature that she sees as the epitome of sophistication, but because she’s just a teenager, she overdoes it a little.  I didn’t feel like Bray was shoving all that lingo down my throat; I thought she was using it for characterization purposes and, in my opinion, it works.

I would recommend The Diviners to anyone looking for a creepy, thrilling read—especially readers who loved her Victorian series that began with A Great and Terrible Beauty or those looking for a read-alike for Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series.  I also think that with the new Gatsby movie coming out this summer, quite a few teens will be looking for things set in or about the 1920s, and with its sumptuous attention to detail and wonderful sense of time and place, this novel certainly hits that mark.



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