Book Review: The Diviners by Libba Bray
Roaring 20s. Jazz Age. Prohibition. Flappers.
Libba Bray perfectly captures the excitement and glamour of 1920s Manhattan in her newest young adult novel, The Diviners. Set in New York in 1926, The Diviners is a long book (500+ pages) with a sprawling cast of characters whose lives intersect amid the outward glitter of jazz clubs, boisterous parties, and daring girls looking to get noticed. The bright lights and loud music mask a darker underbelly, as a nation recovers from war, teeters on the brink of the coming economic disaster, reacts to political activism and division, and fails to take note of the growing blackness creeping into the world.
Main character Evie O’Neill is a sparkling, au courant flapper, a 17-year-old shining star stuck in small-town Zenith, Ohio, until her need to show off at a party gets her “exiled” to live with her eccentric uncle in Manhattan. Evie’s uncle, William Fitzgerald, is the director of the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult — or the Museum of the Creepy Crawlies, as it’s known in popular parlance. A confirmed bachelor, Will oversees a dusty collection that no one visits and give lectures on the occult and the supernatural. When Evie arrives, she’s not content to just sit around a fusty old museum and immediately throws herself into the whirlwind of high times in New York.
Unfortunately, there’s a killer on the loose, who begins leaving a trail of ritually mutilated bodies. The killer is soon dubbed The Pentacle Killer by the sensation-seeking tabloid press, and Evie and her uncle are thrust into the action as they begin consulting with the police on the occult symbolism surrounding the bodies.
Evie crosses paths with an array of memorable characters, including showgirl Theta, who ran away from a troubled past and reinvented herself on the New York stage; Theta’s best friend Henry, a talented piano player with a secret life; Memphis, a good-looking Harlem numbers-runner who longs to be a poet; Memphis’s younger brother Isaiah, prone to odd dreams and prophecies; Jericho, Will’s stoic assistant with his own secrets to keep; and many more.
Secrets abound. Each of the main characters has a hidden gift — a secret power — which must remain guarded. But as the killer works toward the climax of a foretold ritual designed to bring about the end of times, Evie and others are called upon to use their talents to unearth the clues that may empower them to save themselves and their world. This group of people, of diverse backgrounds and with differing talents, soon realize that they are part of a prophecied group called the Diviners, who will play a part in defeating a darkness yet to come.
Libba Bray succeeds beautifully in The Diviners in conjuring forth a time and place gone by. Her descriptions of Manhattans’s sights, smells, and sounds, the glamor of the flapper girls, the allure of hot jazz clubs — all are rendered so precisely that you can feel them come alive. Evie and friends use the lingo of the times to great effect: Evie asks for “giggle water” when she’s looking for a nip of gin; she frequently pronounces things “the bee’s knees” or “the cat’s pajamas”; her speech is peppered with “posititutely” and “you bet-ski”… and it’s all quite delicious. Evie is witty, charming, and quick on her feet (“A murder! Oh, my. Let me just change my shoes.”); she uses her flapper attitude to cope with the grief of her older brother’s death in the Great War, and never lets on that there is a sorrow underneath her fun-times demeanor.
Fabulous too is the looming sense of dread, which grows darker and scarier throughout the book as the killer moves closer and closer to fulfilling the prophecies, and it becomes clear that the threat is beyond human, and may well be unstoppable. The supernatural elements are unveiled bit by bit, and the creepiness amps up as the plot hurtles forward.
The Diviners is both an excellent period piece and a creepy occult murder mystery, with heavy doses of prophecies of doom and mystical dreams of strange times to come. If the book had ended with the resolution of the pentacle killings, it would have made a terrific stand-alone novel. However, it doesn’t end there. The Diviners is the first in a series, and I’m a bit uncertain as to where the story may go or how long the series will end up being. The author has established the group of characters who form the Diviners, and it’s clear that they will continue down the path of fighting some mysterious being whose shape has yet to be fully revealed or understood. I look forward to spending more time with the enchanting Evie and her eclectic group of friends and colleagues. I trust that, in Libba Bray’s deliciously talented hands, the story will continue to be engaging, colorful, and creepy. I just hope that the series will have a strong finish, rather than turning into an open-ended story without an end-point. Still, despite my hesitation over getting involved in a new series, it’s clear that The Diviners is something special, and I look forward to seeing what happens next.