I’ll be honest, guys: I was really, really worried about this one. After being disappointed and slightly embarrassed by Beauty Queens, I was worried that Libba Bray had lost it.
But I should have known better. This is the woman who wrote the Gemma Doyle books, a historic fiction/supernatural series about teens with magic powers; and Going Bovine, a book about a teenager trying to stop the end of the world. Once I realized that The Diviners was going to be a historic fiction/supernatural thriller series about teens with magic powers trying to prevent the end of the world, I knew everything was going to be okay, because this not a heavy-handed political statement about feminism and pageant foolery. This is unabashed Gothic supernatural historic fiction, and it’s what Libba Bray does best.
The story takes place in 1926 New York, and centers around seventeen-year-old Evie O’Neill. Evie has been sent to New York to live with her uncle, who owns a museum of the occult. Evie is having a fun time going to parties in speakeasies with her friend the Ziegfeld girl, but then things get weird. People are being ritualistically murdered around the city, and Evie’s uncle is called in to help. Haunted houses, cults, demons, psychic powers, and general Gothic shenanigans follow.
There were many opportunities for this book to go wrong, but it never did. I’m going to list them here and explain how Bray managed to avoid disaster – bear in mind that your tolerance for these issues may be less than mine, so if you read this and hate it, you can’t say you weren’t warned.
Why This Book Was Almost A Disaster, But Wasn’t:
-Evie is a Special Snowflake with magic powers. When she holds an object, like a bracelet or a handkerchief, she can “read” the object and discover secrets about the owner. Her ability comes into play during the investigation, and she uses it to try to solve the murders.
BUT: Evie is merely one of many Special Snowflakes. In fact, it can be argued that she isn’t even the most Special of the Special Snowflakes. There are other teenage characters in the story who also have different abilities, several of which don’t even reach their full potential in this book. This isn’t A Great and Terrible Beauty, where Gemma Doyle was the Chosen One who could save the whole world all by herself because she is Special. This is more like X-Men, where various adolescents with psychic abilities are brought together to fight evil as a group. This made Evie’s Specialness much more bearable.
-The Dreaded Love Triangle. Ugh. Why is this a thing now? Why are teenage girl protagonists required to have no less than TWO boys be in love with them at once? Why do we keep doing this, it is getting stupid. Unfortunately, The Diviners falls into this horrible, terrible, no-good trope, and Evie has two admirers throughout the story: the charming but rakish pickpocket whom she spars with constantly(*facepalm*), and the sensitive bookish type who is obviously in love with Evie but she doesn’t realize it so she tries to set him up with her friend (double *facepalm*).
BUT: the love triangle takes up very little space in the overall story, and Evie herself isn’t too occupied with figuring out which of the two boys she wants to make out with. In fact, she spends almost no time thinking about them in romantic terms, so the love triangle goes mostly unnoticed, up until the supremely awkward moment when she decides, “oh hey, I guess I’m in love with this one now!” But at least we didn’t spend 60% of the book on, “do I love this boy, or this boy? QUANDARY!” Also the boys in question never get into possessive fights over who is better qualified to mack on our heroine, so thank God for that, anyway.
-Constant reminders that, “Hey, it’s 1926!” Evie and her friends talk almost exclusively in flapper slang. Spectacles are “cheaters.” Gin is “giggle water.” Everything is “jake” and everybody is “on the trolley” and every other fucking-ski word-ski ends in “-ski.” I imagine that flappers got punched in the face a lot, because I don’t see how anyone could stand being around someone who talks that way all the time (there’s even a scene where Evie is talking to her uncle and has to stop every few sentences to explain her slang terms to the poor square. Evie’s uncle is decidedly not on the trolley). Also we can’t go five pages without some very obvious “Here’s what’s happening in 1926!” reminder. Rudolph Valentino’s death is referenced at least five times, the Scopes trial three times, and fucking everybody is a bootlegger. (and obviously, no book set in the 20’s would be complete without someone exclaiming that of course the stock market won’t crash! That’s just silly talk!) Also we get a lot of descriptions of Evie’s flapper outfits – so many cloche hats.
BUT: it didn’t even bother me. Really, it didn’t, because I could tell that Libba Bray was just having so much fun reveling in this time period, and she just wanted to show us everything she learned. She clearly had a blast researching this story, and I wasn’t even mad that she just wanted to share it with us. And you get used to the slang terms after a while.
-Your disbelief must be well and firmly suspended, because enjoying this book as much as it should be demands that you believe that magic is real. The book’s antagonist, a demonic entity known as Naughty John, is brought back to the real world by a bunch of kids playing with a Ouija board (the more I think about this, the more I realize how dumb that actually is). All the psychic powers demonstrated in this story are real, and even though there are occasional mentions of fake Spiritualists, we never see any actual fake psychics. In fact, Evie’s uncle even references the Fox sisters (the first article about them that comes to mind is this Cracked article, so enjoy!), and, instead of discussing how they were able to fake their abilities, says that they could so talk to ghosts, and only said that they were faking it because they contacted a really dangerous spirit and got scared. Sigh.
BUT: Again, didn’t even care. By the time we got to the Fox sisters stuff, I was fully invested in this fun, scary mystery and didn’t even care. I was on the trolley, hard, and was not going to get off even for that. If you let yourself get sucked into this story and let it pull you into its world of ghosts, psychics, and cults, all those issues I listed above aren’t even going to bother you. You’re going to be having too much fun living in this terrific ghost story that Libba Bray has masterfully constructed. It’s supposed to be fun, and if you let it, you can have a great time in the world of The Diviners.
“Something stirs in the deep shadows, something terrible, and the wind, which knows evil well, shrinks from this place. It flees towards the safety of those magnificent tall buildings that promise the blue skies, nothing but blue skies, of the future, of industry, and prosperity; the future, which does not believe in the evil of the past. If the wind were a sentinel, it would send up the alarm. It would cry out a warning of terrors to come. But it is only the wind, and it knows well that no one listens to its cries.
Deep in the cellar of the dilapidated house, a furnace comes to life with a death rattle like the last bitter cough of a dying man laughing contemptuously at his fate. A faint glow emanates from that dark, foul-smelling earthen tomb. Yes, something moves again in the shadows. A harbinger of much greater evil to come. Naughty John has come home. And he has work to do.”
Verdict: four out of five stars