Book Review: The Diviners

The Diviners by Libba Bray. Reviewed by Louise Hilton.

The DivinersThe Diviners, the first in a planned series by famed young adult author Libba Bray, is such a treat to read. Set in the captivating world of 1926 Manhattan, replete with flappers, jazz halls, and speakeasies, the story centers around Evie O’Neill, a vivacious teenager with a knack for getting into trouble, sent by her parents to live with her eccentric uncle Will, a professor and curator at the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult, referred to as the Museum of the Creepy Crawlies by Evie and her friends.

Dazzled by the lights and excitement of New York, Evie is determined to make a name for herself and put her past firmly behind her. Little does she know she and her uncle will soon find themselves embroiled in a police investigation of a bizarre series of murders, each one more gruesome than the last, all connected to a maniac who calls himself Naughty John. Obsessed with the occult, he reenacts ritual murders inspired by his twisted interpretation of the Book of Revelations and is soon dubbed the Pentacle Killer by the press because of the ancient pentacle symbol he brands on his victims. Shudder.

Why is Evie involved, you might wonder? It turns out she is a diviner, meaning she can tell a person’s secrets simply by holding onto a personal object. Her help in the investigation proves invaluable as she races against time to discover the killer’s true identity before he can strike again. Just who is responsible for the gruesome murders? How can it be Naughty John, alias John Hobbes, for he died decades ago? How could he possibly be committing these atrocities from beyond the grave? Everyone from members of the Ku Klux Klan to poor Uncle Will himself comes under suspicion at some point, and Bray keeps you guessing until the very end.

Evie meets a host of colorful characters in the city, most of whom have their own secret special powers as well. There’s Memphis, a handsome young bookie from Harlem who dreams of being a writer like his hero Langston Hughes, who gained a reputation of being a healer but his little brother Isaiah is the one to watch. Memphis falls for Theta, a beautiful Ziegfeld dancer, who also came to New York to escape her past demons. Memphis, Isaiah, and Theta are just a few of the handful of interesting characters Bray so aptly develops.

Her depiction of Prohibition-era fashion, fads, and popular culture is also spot-on. Evie and her friends hit the town to visit jazz halls and nightclubs with secret passageways through which revelers can escape should a police raid occur. Memphis’s late night strolls through the streets of Harlem and other neighborhoods put you right there alongside him. And I got such a kick out of the sassy Evie and her way with words. In keeping with the slang of the time, she and her friends use silly adverbs like “positutely” and “absotively” and often add “ski” to the end of their phrases, so it’s “You betski” this  and “Not on your lifeski” that.

Though ambitious in its scope with its cast of characters with special powers and interweaving storylines, Bray more than pulls it off. There’s something for everyone in this book – history, suspense, horror, romance, and a great setting and cast. The Diviners, a doozy at 578 pages, reads like a book half that length. Check it out… it’s positutely the cat’s pajamas.

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