When Evie’s parents ship her off to New York City to live with her Uncle Will, she’s expecting a positutely wonderful new life in the city that never sleeps, Prohibition be damned. Maybe the glitz and glamour can help her forget about her brother, killed in World War I, or the weird power she has that keeps getting her in trouble. But that’s before a serial killer starts cutting a swathe of ritualistic murders through New York – murders that Uncle Will thinks might be calculated to bring about the apocalypse. Throw in a Harlem poet with healing hands, a charismatic pickpocket digging up government conspiracies, a Ziegfield Girl with a troubled past, plenty of hooch, and a whole lot of secrets, and New York may just be more than Evie bargained for.
When I reviewed Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle trilogy, I noted that I love Victoriana and boarding school stories. Well, I love the Roaring 20s and plucky girl detectives even more, so when I found out this book was coming out it was pretty much like Christmas and my birthday all at once.
So let’s start by talking about the setting. Like the Gemma books, it’s incredibly well-realized. There are times when the slang gets a little heavy, I’ll admit, but for the most part Libba* constructs a rich, rowdy world of Gatsby-esque decadence for the reader to get lost in. Evie’s struggles for independence and the theme of post-WWI alienation running through the book help to bolster the feeling of Jazz Age authenticity. Speaking as a New Yorker, Libba also mixes spot-on descriptions of real-life the city with landmarks that are no longer there or never existed at all in order to immerse you in a fictionalized, magical Manhattan that feels very real.
Now for the other half of my favorite things: the plucky girl detective. You guys, I loved Evie. Loved, loved, loved her. It feels a little weird to say that a character is charismatic, particularly the main character of a book (as opposed to, say, her charming love interest), but Evie bubbles over with life and verve. She’s funny, she’s bright, she’s energetic, she’s full of beans. She’s flawed – impulsive, careless, and often selfish – but like so many people in real life, she’s so radiant you can’t help forgiving her for being a bit of a bull in an emotional china shop. And she does possess deeper feeling; a vast gulf of grief over her brother, genuine love and loyalty towards her friends, and a powerful need to do the right thing and use her power to catch the serial killer “Naughty John,” even when it’s painful and scary. I also have a bit of a weakness for bubbly young people living with emotionally closed-off uncles – blame a childhood of DuckTales for that one. I would’ve liked more of Evie and Will’s relationship, but what we got was still pretty great.
The rest of the cast was pretty great, too: Evie’s best friend, the sensible, somewhat dowdy Mabel. Their glamorous friend Theta, the hardboiled Ziegfeld Girl, and her sardonic but incredibly kind roommate Henry, the wannabe Tin Pan Alley composer (though I would have liked for the series’ one gay character (so far…?) to have had a slightly larger role). Memphis, the dreamy-eyed loner who runs numbers up in Harlem by night and writes poetry in a graveyard by day and loves his bratty, prophetic little brother Isaiah to pieces. (P.S. How much do I love that the “prophetic little brother” is not another precious Charles Wallace Murray-ripoff, but an energetic, bratty, otherwise completely normal kid? Revolutionary!) Fast-talking, light-fingered Sam, who steals both a kiss and a twenty from Evie the day she arrives in New York, and finds himself caught up in the mystery – and a love rectangle – kind of by accident. Bratty socialites, bloodthirsty reporters, no-nonsense cops, and the Great Ziegfeld himself.
And of course, the killer. The Diviners is a thriller first and foremost, and it certainly thrills. It’s the kind of scary that I avoid reading right before bed, with some rather gruesome (but not age-inappropriate – remember, this is the upper end of Young Adult, not middle grade!) murders, a haunted house that is just as scary as the Cavendish Home, and a growing sense of doom, masterfully built up as the book goes on. Naughty John’s creepy whistling manages to be chillingly Hitchcockian even though you can’t hear it. That’s some good suspense. And there’s the promise of worse to come with the many unresolved plot strands at the end.
…And that’s actually where my only criticism of the book comes into play: the plot. Don’t get me wrong – it’s very good. But there are kind of two plots going on here. One is the one where Evie comes to New York and helps her uncle solve a mystery, and it’s excellent. The other involves Memphis and Theta and a slew of characters from Harlem; Sam’s mother and Will’s assistant Jericho and secret government conspiracies; Evie’s dead brother, Will’s secret past, and a seemingly-friendly guy who keeps chatting up Mabel; the weird, ominous dreams shared by just about every member of the cast and dozens of cryptic “it’s coming”-style warnings from mysterious old ladies. Which is also fine; it’s just that you don’t realize that absolutely none of that has anything to do with Naughty John until, like, the second-to-last chapter of the book. What seemed to be a carefully-woven tapestry is, in fact, a lovely throw pillow and many, many spools of beautiful thread that may or may not be woven into a new tapestry, of which we currently have only a sketch.
I mean, I’m hooked, regardless. Everything in the book was great, and I am chomping at the bit for The Diviners 2: Divine Harder. But Libba is clearly more interested in painting portraits of her various characters and mysteries than in telling one single story, and as a reader who loves a really tight plot, I wish the series was a bit more cohesive.
Oh, and I guess I have one other quick quibble: the romance at the end seemed super rushed. I won’t spoil it, but Evie develops feelings for a character she barely gave the time of day to basically overnight. I’m not opposed to the couple, per se – I just would’ve liked to have seen more build up.
Despite these issues, I obviously loved the book. I tore through it in a day (thank you, long train ride to Boston!) and am eagerly anticipating the next one. Four and a half cupcakes, and a cherry on top.
*Becky and I call Libba by her first name because, like Justine Larbalestier and Tamora Pierce, we want desperately to be friends with her. This is the second-highest honor we can bestow upon a writer, second only to referring to a writer as Mr. Coville.
Tags: Libba Bray