Book Review: The Diviners by Libba Bray

I was left with very mixed feelings about The Diviners by Libba Bray. It took me nearly two months of boredom, frustration and annoyance to get through the first half, and about an afternoon to read the second half. The only reason I persevered was out of stubbornness.

And I’m glad that I did in the end. Somewhere in this gigantic tomb of a book is an interesting story and Bray clearly has a very definite plan for this series. Her writing is evocative and The Diviners is seeped in an eerie atmosphere, not to mention the sheer amount of research that has gone into this book.

It’s 1920s New York City. It’s flappers and Follies, jazz and gin. It’s after the war but before the depression. And for certain group of bright young things its the opportunity to party like never before.

For Evie O’Neill, it’s escape. She’s never fit in in small town Ohio and when she causes yet another scandal, she’s shipped off to stay with an uncle in the big city. But far from being exile, this is exactly what she’s always wanted: the chance to show how thoroughly modern and incredibly daring she can be.

But New York City isn’t about just jazz babies and follies girls. It has a darker side. Young women are being murdered across the city. And these aren’t crimes of passion. They’re gruesome. They’re planned. They bear a strange resemblance to an obscure group of tarot cards. And the New York City police can’t solve them alone.

Evie wasn’t just escaping the stifling life of Ohio, she was running from the knowledge of what she could do. She has a secret. A mysterious power that could help catch the killer – if he doesn’t catch her first.

Aside from the over-the-top and grating use of slang, the Roaring Twenties is richly drawn. Bray weaves American history pretty seamlessly into the pages, not just flappers and speakeasies and the glamour of the period, but there are also nods to the politics of the time, religious organizations, the Immigration Act, the eugenics movement, racial attitudes, the fear of communism, Prohibition, the rise of organized crime. Even with the vaguest understanding of American history I was able to appreciate just how much Bray has put into recreating the period.

That being said, I have some problems with The Diviners. Glancing through reviews, I can see that I wasn’t the only person completely put off by the annoying overuse of 20’s speech. Every other word was, ‘see you soon-ski!’, ‘you bet-ski’, ‘pos-i-tute-ly!’ It sounded ridiculous and was unnecessary, given how well Bray builds up a strong sense of the era throughout the rest of the novel. Thankfully, once the main story line really takes off, the slang is drastically toned down. Unfortunately it takes roughly 240 pages to get there.

And therein lies one of the main issues I had with this book. It felt like one long, long introduction. Bray spends the majority of the novel building up detailed back-stories for her many characters, meticulously laying the groundwork for the rest of the series. The trouble is, none of these plot threads come together, indeed the majority of the characters don’t really have anything to do with the main plot at all and I was left feeling that a whole lot of it felt, well… irrelevant.

Despite spending an endless amount of time establishing Evie, Memphis, Theta, Will, Sam, Mabel, Jericho and several others whose names I can’t remember, I never felt a connection to these characters. A mixture of flat and stereotypical, there was the vague feeling I’d met them all before. Memphis’ chapters in particular dragged. He seemed to just do the same thing over and over again (mostly wonder about, scribble a few lines of poetry and worry about his brother), and yet how many pages were given over to telling us that? Sadly, Evie, the leading heroine in this book, is a brat. A spoilt shallow girl who I found so distasteful I very nearly abandoned the book altogether.

This is one book I can’t recommend nor discourage from reading. There is some beautiful, powerful, evocative imagery, that is occasionally overdone. Too much time is spent setting everything up for the (admittedly intriguing) overarching plot line of the series, but, at times, to the detriment of this novel. The occult murders are gruesome and one victim in particular is very cleverly set up, but Naughty John, whilst maintaining an air of sinister creepiness, kind of felt like a cheap thrill. I find myself both itching to re-read it just to immerse myself again in the world Bray has created and relived that I even finished it at all.

‘A storefront psychic whose connection to the spirits was nothing more than the pull of a string with a toe to make a knocking under the table felt compelled, quite suddenly, to cover her crystal ball with a cloth and lock it up the a wardrobe. In Chinatown, the girl with the dark hair and green eyes bowed reverently to her ancestors, offered her prayers and readied herself to walk in dreams, among he living and the dead. North along the Hudson, in an abandoned, ruined village, the wind carried the terrible death cries of some ghostly inhabitants, the sound reverberating ever so faintly in the village below so that the men bent over their checkers in the back of the general store glanced nervously at one another, their play suspended, their breath held for several seconds until the wind and sound were gone. Elsewhere in the country, there were similar stirrings. A mother dreamed of her dead daughter and woke, she could swear, to the chilling sound of the words ‘Mama, I’m home.’ A Klansman who’d left his meeting in the woods to piss by an old tree jumped suddenly, as if he’d felt hanging feet dragging across the tops of his shoulders, marking him. There was nothing there, but he brushed at his shoulders anyway, scurrying back toward the fire and his brothers in white. A young Ojibway man watched a silvery shimmer of a hawk circle overhead and disappear. In an old farmhouse, a boy nudged his parents awake. ‘There’s two girls calling me to play hide-and-seek with them in the cornfields,” he whispered. His father ordered him sleepily back to bed, and when the boy passed by the upstairs window, he saw the incandescent girls in their long skirts and high-necked blouses fading into the edges of the corn, crying mournfully, “Come, come play with us…’

~ page 372

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Diviners by Libba Bray

  1. Great review! I’ve been wanting to read this, but I’ve been put off by the length — even more so now since you thought it went on for a bit too long in the beginning. I’m glad it did pick up, though. I really loved Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle series so I’m excited to pick up something else by her eventually.

    • Thanks 🙂 I remembering enjoying the Gemma Doyle series years ago – let me know what you think if you do decide to give it a go!

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