The Devil in the Details: Libba Bray’s The Diviners

the diviners

Though I am a fan of the YA genre, I have to admit I still underestimate it at times. The Diviners is the perfect case in point. With a busy week ahead of me not long ago I decided to put down a book I had been savoring to read something lighter that did not require as much attention… or so I thought. I picked up my copy of The Diviners from my “to-read” stack as a diversion, despite its length. Well, the joke was on me because I stayed up until the wee hours on a Sunday until I forced myself to put it down and go to bed. Repeat on Monday night. Tuesday night I put it down early- because I had finished it.

Evie O’Neill is forced to leave her hometown in Ohio after another unsettling incident with her powers, which allow her to read people just by touching an object. She is sent to live with her Uncle Will in the roaring New York City of the 1920s. Uncle Will is the curator of The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult and is far more interested in research than the goings on of a teenage girl. His assistant, Jericho, is not so distracted and definitely keeps an eye on Evie. So too does Sam, a young thief who seems to have a preternatural ability to move around places unseen.

Reunited with her old pen pal from a former visit, seventeen year old Evie seeks out all the marvels of the big city she has heard so much about- from speakeasies to Vaudeville shows. Along the way she meets Theta, a showgirl, and her piano player brother, Henry. The unadulterated fun does not last long before Uncle Will cracks down on her wild behavior. At the same time, the police come to Uncle Will for help with a bizarre murder that turns out to be the first of many. With the use of her powers, Evie quickly discovers her uncle and the police are not after any ordinary madman. Naughty John is an evil she has never encountered.

At the same time Uptown, Memphis Campbell is a young man running numbers in Harlem. His position gives him some status in his neighborhood, but his past as a healer (used as a faith healer) still haunts him. Now his brother is showing signs of a gift as well and Memphis tries hard to protect him. Surrounded by influences like Langston Hughes, all he really wants is to focus on his poetry and writing. Still, something more pressing threatens him and his family. Unbeknownst to him, the evil Naughty John stalking the streets of Manhattan has his origins close to home.

Evie’s and Memphis’ stories eventually intersect. As they do the threads connecting Diviners (though they are not referred to collectively like that in the book) are woven more tightly. To say more would be to give away the end, but it does bode well for more cohesive sequels.

Personally, I loved the rich historical detail in this book. Chances are no one reading this was alive in the 1920s and Bray did a great job bringing New York of that decade to life. She did not just give a great sense of what Broadway must have looked like or talk about a Follies show, she also went into the day to day moments. So much of life today is driven by technology, having the operator used to make a call in the story or discussing how movie theaters were cooled before air conditioning units were widely available was very interesting to me.

The malevolence of Naughty John and the eerie feel of his character and actions throughout the book also drew me in. In contrast to the vibrancy of Evie’s Manhattan and Memphis’ Harlem, Naughty John is a darkness that clouds their youthful exuberance. It is drawn tension that crosses into the other narratives as well and builds at a great pace. I am as pragmatic as they come, but there were a couple times when regular household noises in the middle of the night prompted me to get up and look around just to be sure because the story had me on edge.

At almost 600 pages, Bray gets in a lot and it can sometimes feel drawn out. This is meant to be the first in a trilogy from what I understand, but it feels as though Bray is trying to cram a lot into the first volume. The changes in perspective are great at some moments while very frustrating at others. They are not short shifts in perspective, but long chapters between characters. There was also one twist at the very end with a character I thought might be coming, but was still disappointed when it did. I hope Bray has a good use for it in the rest of the series.

I felt Memphis’ character and the backdrop of the gangsters and Harlem Renaissance would have made a great stand alone sequel to really get into the scene. Maybe Bray was eager to make the characters connect in this book. With more issues being raised about the whitewashing of YA books, maybe it never even occurred to her editors to suggest a book about a young man in Harlem could be a standalone. That is all just conjecture though. It stands as it is and the character is one I do look forward to reading about in future novels. I hope she continues to give Harlem the same (or more) attention throughout the series.

All said, with a vivid historical setting and seriously spooky (sometimes downright scary) tones, this was an enjoyable read. If you enjoy historical fiction, light horror, and/or supernatural mysteries, pick this one up to lose yourself for a few hours in 1920s Manhattan.