Review: Libba Bray’s The Diviners

DivinersYA fiction is haunted by the successes of the past—the category is teeming with wizards, vampires, and dystopias vying to be the next Harry Potter, the next Twilight, the next Hunger Games. The entire industry is dominated by a worldview I’ll call next-big-thingism: mega-bestsellers that come out of nowhere and then become genres in their own right as hosts of influenced titles follow in their wake. Unfortunately for publishers, it’s the “out of nowhere” part of that formula that’s simultaneously the easiest thing to miss and the most important part of the next big thing. It’s the books that look like nothing on the market right now that tend to catch fire with audiences.

That’s what makes them big. That’s also what makes them next.

I don’t know what the next big thing is going to be any more than the big publishing houses do, sadly—but allow me to hope that it might be Libba Bray’s The Diviners.

Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight inspired a “Teen Paranormal Romance” section in Barnes & Noble; if The Diviners truly is the next big thing, the hybrid subgenre it would spawn might be called “Supernatural Historical Mystery-Adventure.” Set in the 1920s, the novel concerns one Evie O’Neill, a teenage flapper exiled from her home state of Ohio for scandalous behavior and sent to live with her Uncle Will in Jazz-Age New York. Evie comes to a Manhattan troubled by a series of gruesome occultist murders—murders which her uncle, an expert in the occult and curator of the Museum of Creepy Crawlies, is asked to help investigate. Evie, meanwhile, has a secret that may help with the case: a supernatural ability to see into the minds of others. Though she doesn’t know it, Evie’s gift makes her a diviner, one of a group of people with special powers hidden throughout the city.

If this sounds like a grab-bag of influences, it absolutely is—a melange of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherlock Holmes, The X-Men, The X-Files, and the movie Se7en that turns out to be a powerful elixir that’s way more than the sum of it’s parts.

At nearly 600 pages, the narrative takes a while to really get going, but that’s OK, because Libba Bray is up to something more here than delivering a simple whodunit. She casts a wide net in her portrayal of the city, spinning out supporting characters and subplots with ease. Evie herself is brave and spunky, with her love of gin and dancing and frequent exclamations of “posi-tute-ly!” and “you-betski!” Alongside her, we’re introduced to her best friend Mabel, the neglected daughter of workers’ rights activists; Memphis, a Harlem poet and numbers-runner; Sam, a pickpocket with powers of his own; and Theta, the up-and-coming chorus girl who seems to be running from something.

I won’t say much more about the main plot—suffice it to say that the murderer Evie and Will are chasing is no ordinary criminal, and the fate of the world may hang in the balance. It’s excellently paced, pausing, picking up steam, and doubling back exactly when it needs to, and building to an exciting, satisfying climax. But if the murder plot with its steady drumbeat of bodies provides The Diviners with momentum, it’s the multiple subplots that provide it with heft, and a gesture toward something bigger that will be spun out in future books.

It’s as we learn more about the supporting characters backstories that we get a hint of Bray’s ambition. There are hints that she’s attempting something with American history similar to what Susanna Clarke did with English history in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. What we start to get in The Diviners is a powerful alternate history of the United States, in which the nightmares of the 20th century are interwoven with a dark magical subtext that gives them weight and context. Racial strife and workers’ rights are an element in the book, as is the eugenics movement that gained traction in this period. There’s also WWI, the historical catastrophe that took Evie’s brother away from her—and which Bray cleverly gives a very 21st-century paranoiac gloss via the mysterious government program that becomes a sort of talisman as the book draws to a close: Project Buffalo.

It’s through flourishes like these that The Diviners moves beyond a simple entertainment to become something else: a great and deeply resonant one. By punching it up with magic, Bray has done more than make history fun: she’s made it matter for her young (and old!) readers. This distinct mixture of historical, paranormal, and crime fiction is a powerful brew. Whether it’s the next big thing is up for audiences to decide.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s