I am not usually one to read horror books. I don’t like to stay up late at night jumping at every sound and wondering if I will be brutally murdered by the vent creature (Tooms) from X–Files. And if there is a creepy murderous character involved, I definitely will be jumping at every sound. That said, when I saw Libba Bray’s The Diviners at ALA’s Midwinter Conference, I just had to pick it up (I received this, the display copy, either for free or for $10 by being the first person to reach it when the publisher began packing up after the conference… I can’t remember). I had no idea how creepy it would be, but it was definitely worth the late-night scares.
The Diviners takes place in the roaring 20s, and the bright young protagonist, Evangeline (Evie) O’Neill, quickly moves from her boring mid-west town to the ever exciting New York City. Evie has the power to read personal information about the people around her off of their possessions. A mishap with a ring and an influential playboy in her home town causes her to be sent as punishment to live with her uncle in New York City. This is perhaps the most unbelievable part of the book (magic rituals, ghosts, horrific murders, and cyborgs included)—what parent wouldn’t know that sending their flapper daughter to New York City would be the best “punishment” ever?
However, shipped off Evie is, and she arrives in New York ready to party, drink, and make a name for herself. Along with her friend Mabel and Theta, a Ziegfeld Girl living in their apartment building, Evie begins to paint the town red. However, in another, more dilapidated part of the city, an evil murderer has returned from beyond the grave and continued a string of ritualistic murders he began during his lifetime. The murders are occult in nature, and Evie’s uncle just so happens to be the curator of the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult. Evie, her uncle, and her uncle’s hot brooding assistant Jericho are brought in to consult on the murders, which is how Evie first touches the dead girl’s shoe buckle and realizes that she can offer insights to the murder that no one else has access to. Sadly, she is a little more concerned with living the good life than finding the murderer… at least at first.
The Diviners has a cast of fabulous characters, because that’s what Libba Bray does. She makes complicated, awesome characters come alive, while also challenging stereotypes and including characters who break the white-and-straight mold. Can you see why I love her? Memphis is a young man from Harlem with once (and future?) powers and mysterious dreams. Henry, Theta’s best friend and roommate, is a piano-player for the Ziegfeld Follies with secrets and the power to dream-walk (although we don’t get to see much of this yet…) who happens to also be gay. Jericho, the hot and silent assistant, has his own secret past that unravels as the story continues. Sam is a confidence man who can walk unseen when he wishes (which enables him to pick pockets with ease). Then there are the darker characters, like the murderer Naughty John himself (and his coterie). We meet many of his victims as the novel unfolds, and we get to peek into his creepy cultist mind. He whistles his own theme song as he murders his innocent victims and I would lie awake for ages after reading The Diviners, listening for whistling. He is truly quite creepy, and it is he that makes this novel horrifying and spine chilling!
One drawback to having an all-star cast of amazing, well-fleshed out characters is that it takes a while for the story to really start running. Of course, I knew Libba Bray would not leave me disappointed, and eventually the different plot-lines meet and cross and connect in fabulous, thrilling ways (like car-chases, shoot-outs, police raids, satanic rituals, and trapped-in-a-haunted-house-of-evil sorts of ways). Another issue for me, at times, was how very selfish and not-immediately heroic Evie often is. She’s got gumption and vim and all that, but at times she really does seem keener to go out and get drunk than she is to save people from gruesome murder. Then again, she does struggle with her own demons, and really, a teenage girl who just wants to go out and have a good time instead of saving the world is… well, way more realistic than all those novels with people who easy accept the loss of friends and their social life in exchange for unbelievable responsibility and probable future tragedy.
The bottom line is: read this book. If you like being scared, if you don’t like being scared, if you aren’t sure if you like being scared or not. It doesn’t matter! This book has boozing, socialism, murder, cults, and petty theft (and, okay, a tiny bit of romance, but not really very much at all because they are all too busy boozing and solving murders), all done up tastefully for a YA audience. The only thing you will regret after finishing it is that the sequel, Lair of Dreams, does not come out until August 5th, 2014. Hopefully in that one we will learn a little more about Henry and the mysterious Chinese girl who both seem to walk in and out of other people’s dreams!