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Monday, September 17, 2012

The Diviners by Libba Bray

Release Date: Sept. 18, 2012
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Age Group: Young Adult
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
Pages: 608
Buy: Amazon / Book Depository / IndieBound
Description: Goodreads
Evie O'Neill has been exiled from her boring old hometown and shipped off to the bustling streets of New York City--and she is pos-i-toot-ly thrilled. New York is the city of speakeasies, shopping, and movie palaces! Soon enough, Evie is running with glamorous Ziegfield girls and rakish pickpockets. The only catch is Evie has to live with her Uncle Will, curator of The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult--also known as "The Museum of the Creepy Crawlies."

When a rash of occult-based murders comes to light, Evie and her uncle are right in the thick of the investigation. And through it all, Evie has a secret: a mysterious power that could help catch the killer--if he doesn't catch her first.
The Diviners’ greatest strength is Bray’s style, which is closely entwined with her main character, Evie. While reading, there’s a sense that we’re really just watched Bray play. It seems like almost every page, aside from those dealing with the Big Bad, has at least one knee-slapper or clever turn of phrase. These witticisms are delivered almost exclusively by Evie, the consequence being that most of the other characters seem a bit dull by comparison, despite being mostly well-rounded themselves. It’s hard to criticize Bray for that, though, since Evie simply makes the novel so much fun.

Bray’s choice of setting, 1920s Manhattan, is perfect. It’s a rebellious time (flappers, speakeasies, jazz) that fits our heroine’s personality and Bray’s bouncy writing style. It’s also a time when science was advancing just enough that we started to believe that anything was possible. The Wright Brothers had figured out flight less than 20 years before. Humanity was just starting to toy with radiation. Why couldn’t there also be cyborgs and soothsayers and people with special abilities?

Considering the jolly style, Bray manages to cover a surprising number of heavy topics, from underage drinking to premarital sex to rape. With the obvious exception of rape, she avoids passing any judgement. She forces the characters to deal with the consequences of their actions, but often employs a one-liner from Evie to undercut the weight of a topic (e.g., her response to the suggestion that god doesn’t care that evil exists: “Well, that certainly explains Prohibition”). As a semi-spoilery example, Evie and company go to a speakeasy. Naturally, they get arrested, but rather than turning this consequence into an anti-drinking sermon, Bray uses it to reinforce the book’s theme of clashing belief systems. Evie isn’t wrong for drinking, she just got caught by people who think she is.

Despite all of the above fawning, the book has a few nagging issues, all closely tied to The Evie Problem mentioned above. It boils down to this: there are other Diviners, but they don’t matter. Only one of them has a full character arc and the motivations of the others only become apparent, and are nowhere near resolved, in the final 50 or so pages. The Diviners wants to eat its cake and have it too, trying to tell a self-contained story that also sets up future stories. Unfortunately, the result is about 150 pages that end up going nowhere and probably should have been the beginning of the sequel, although it’s hard to fault Bray too much when those pages are as enjoyable as the rest.

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