A great character can often elevate a perfectly pleasant book into an excellent read. And Libba Bray's The Diviners is not what you'd call a pleasant read — it's creepy good fun — but its characters really are the book's strongest part. The cast is gloriously wide-ranging, including everyone from the socialist daughter of an ex-socialite, to a gay piano player at the Ziegfeld Follies, to a Harlem number-runner. But the star of the show is slang-talking flapper Evie O'Neill.
Evie is a glorious confection of impulse, modernity, and joie de vivre. At turns selfish, haunted (in more ways than one), and broken, Evie reads as if Bray actually managed to turn a teenager into a character. Seventeen-year-old Evie has a gift — she can read objects and see the owners' memories in them. When this causes no little distress in her small Ohio town, she is banished to her Uncle Will's museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult. Since the museum is in Manhattan, this is less of a punishment and more a chance for Evie to take the city by storm.
Unfortunately a madman is also taking the city by storm, performing a series of bizarre occult related murders. Will is called in to help the police and Evie finds herself in the middle of serial killer investigation. She is sure her powers can help, but they lead to clues that are both horrifying and impossible. Here Bray's writing gets into some good old-fashioned horror. She gives us the moments immediately preceding the murders from the victims' point of view. While she mostly relies on familiar horror settings for these — foggy nights, a creepy house, a slaughterhouse — they are still chilling. When she goes beyond these, giving the reader the dread of working late in an empty building or placing a beloved secondary character in danger, the book is impossible to put down.
The secondary characters are more than lovable — they're intriguing and fully-fleshed out. Theta the chorine and Henry the piano player scream jazz-age decadence, but it's tempered by their fierce loyalty. The scene where we learn how the two met is one of the highlights of the book. Sam is a pick-pocket, car thief and all around flim-flam man who's got, if not a heart of gold, then a broken heart. Memphis, the number runner, wants nothing more than to be a poet. At least until he meets Theta.
Even a character who at first seems to provide little more than scene setting, Blind Bill Johnson, has depth — both poignant and dark. Even the crazy cat ladies turn out to be more than they seem. Unbeknownst to Evie and her uncle, they all have various psychic powers. The characters' interactions feel realistic, whether it's Evie plotting or Will reprimanding. Bray has a particularly light touch with the apparently required love triangles: They're believable, but don't become the book's focus. And just when you think you know exactly how much Bray has pushed limits of the historical world and you think you have a handle on the book's weirdness, Bray throws in something else. I'd hate to spoil this, so let's just say Diviners takes place in a world of wonders, and they're not all supernatural.
The race to stop the serial killer ties these characters together, sometimes tragically. As plots go, it's pretty solid, taking a hint from the film M and allowing Bray to construct a super creepy doomsday cult. She produces some lovely twisted versions of the Book of Revelations as an inspiration for their religious writings. Bray digs in to the Second Great Awakening and theosophy as well. This grounds the supernatural aspect of the novel. Though her decision to include Alma White and her Pillar of Fire Church has the unfortunate side effect of making the book contain two Mrs. Whites and two Almas.
There are times when YA fiction radically diverges from adult fiction – in Diviners it's the world building. Bray is well aware that her teen readers aren't going to be particularly well-versed in anything that happened between the Civil War and World War II. She needs kids to understand the time period: There are phonographs; there are no talking pictures; there is the Harlem Renaissance, there is racism and segregation; there are cars, they may need their engines' cranked during an escape from the bad guys. It's hard to fault an author for doing the work they need to do for their intended audience, but there are times when the historical detail gets a bit mind-numbing. But I understand that even though I only need her to mention the Follies or the Strand Movie Palace and I have a very solid image of those things, teenagers probably need their hands held through these long-ago cultural references. Bray is an excellent writer and any reader not familiar with the time period is going to come away with a thorough education in the workings of New York in the 1920s. It's not just technical and historical details either – she captures both late-20's exuberant optimism, the social psychosis of Prohibition and the lingering shadow of World War I.
The flip-side of the overwhelming world-building is Bray getting to indulge in some glorious flapper speak. Evie matching wits with a yellow journalist is a head spinning delight. But it's topped by scene in which Evie tries to explain what she's discovered at the library to her uncle. Luckily Sam's on hand to translate for the poor fellow. Bray isn't just interested in the language of flappers and doomsday cults, though. Throughout the book, her language is poetic. Whether she's describing the wind moving through New York or the shared dreams of some of the characters, Bray is painting pictures with words. The epilogue is a sort of explosive description of a supernatural and dark America that could practically stand on its own as a piece of prose poetry.
Those who treat YA as a quick hit of narrative that can be finished off in an afternoon should be warned, Diviners is nearly 600 pages long in hardcover. It's also, of course, the first book in a series. Bray has set so many plates spinning in this book and she's got so many still up in the air at the end (Who is the green-eyed girl from Chinatown? Who are the men in the black suits? What happened in World War I?) that both the length and the impending series are forgivable. I hope Bray feels that teenagers have been thoroughly schooled in the 1920s. That way she can get on with the fascinating Evie and her friends' supernatural adventures with a little less baggage.