The Diviners is a 2012 YA fantasy in the supernatural horror genre, and the first book in THE DIVINERS series by Libba Bray. At a birthday party in Manhattan in the 1920’s, a group of partying teenagers decides to play with a Ouija board. They promptly do several things they’re really not supposed to do, like failing to make the spirit controlling the board say good-bye (is this really a thing?), thereby unleashing the spirit of a dead serial killer on the world.
The second chapter of The Diviners introduces our main character, Evie O’Neill, from Ohio. She’s an insolent and self-centered seventeen-year-old who likes to party hard and drink too much gin. Evie spouts 1920’s slang almost every time she opens her mouth, and thinks she’s smarter than everyone else around her, including her parents. Evie also has the ability to touch an object and see its history. This backfires for her socially when she touches a young man’s handkerchief and accuses him of sexual hanky-panky. Her exasperated parents ship her off to New York City to stay with her Uncle Will, curator of The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult.
The evil spirit released by the Ouija board embarks on a serial murder spree, becoming more and more tangible and dangerous with each murder. Luckily Evie and several other diverse characters are Diviners, with their own supernatural powers that can combat the evil ones. It’s kind of like a Roaring Twenties-era Ghostbusters, with investigations and a quest to stop evil spirits and a little romance, except, of course, without the cool ghost-catching technology or anyone with a sense of humor. Also, this first novel in the series is setting the stage for future developments. Evie is keeping her supernatural powers hidden, even from her uncle, and the Diviners are not yet a team in any way. But you can see the threads that will, presumably, pull them together in future novels.
Bray’s writing style is polished, but the 1920’s content, while well-researched, seemed forced and excessive, with too much super-imposed 20’s slang. The storyline follows several racially and socially diverse characters, including people of color and a gay character, but the continuous point of view switches can make it more difficult to become immersed in the story and easier to skip storylines that are less appealing. The horror content is on an upper YA level: not extremely gory, but still disturbing, with some tense scenes and some gruesomely described bodies. It’s not for sensitive souls or those who dislike supernatural evil plots. While I’m not generally a fan of the horror genre and really never warmed up to the spoiled Evie, I still plan on reading the sequel, Lair of Dreams, to see what becomes of her and the other Diviners.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Libba Bray‘s The Diviners, but it ended up being larger in scope and darker in content than I first anticipated. A religious-themed serial killer is on the loose in 1920s New York City, and the reader is brought up close and personal with most of his victims before they’re gruesomely dispatched.
Evie O’Neill is a vivacious teenager (who occasionally teeters on the edge of obnoxiousness) with a secret: for as long as she came remember she’s been able to divine people’s secrets by handling their personal belongings — but after she uses this gift in the wrong circumstances, her parents send her to New York in disgrace. Evie isn’t particularly fazed at the thought of living with her uncle in his occult museum, especially when the city has so much more to offer her: namely dance halls, jazz and liquor.
But when her uncle is called in by the police to help with the murder investigation, Evie gets a chance to touch some of the possessions owned by the victims, becoming the closest thing the cops have to a witness — that is, if they believe her.
Threaded throughout the central narrative of this mystery and Evie’s involvement are several subplots involving different characters that eventually begin to intertwine as the story goes on: there’s Memphis Campbell, a young man who has since lost his gift of healing but remains fiercely protective of his precognitive little brother; Sam Lloyd, a pickpocket who finds employment at the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition and the Occult; Theta Knight, a Ziegfeld girl running from a dark past and the ability to start fires with her mind; and plenty of others.
The thickness of the book is down to Bray’s skill in juggling all these characters and their interconnected stories, providing some pay-off here, but also setting up the pieces for the second book in the proposed trilogy. As much as I like standalone stories, the idea of all these disparate characters eventually pooling their diviner talents and working together for the greater good is a definite selling point for Lair of Dreams.
The Diviners is a book that revels in its own atmosphere, and Bray obviously had a great time researching this era. The story is filled with 1920s slang, fashion and culture, though neither does it shy away from the racism and sexism of the period, which inform many of the characters’ lives. At times the sheer amount of detail threatens to obscure the story itself, but it’s hard to go wrong with the Roaring Twenties as the backdrop to a grisly murder mystery with supernatural undertones.
I found it to be a meaty, intriguing read with plenty of scary imagery, fun characters, unexpected twists, and an elaborate web of a plot.