In which Jill revisits a beloved genre and reviews a young adult novel: My review of Libba Bray’s The Diviners

the-diviners-coverThis may be the first teen novel I’ve read since we started the blog.  I admit I’ve avoided them lest our readers think my reading tastes are too pedestrian.  But after a year and a half of doing this blogging stuff I’ve decided it’s time to fess up: I do on occasion enjoy reading teen novels of a fantasy bent.  Especially the ones written by Libba Bray.  I first discovered Ms. Bray when A Great and Terrible Beauty came out in 2003.  This was the first in a trilogy about girls in a boarding school in turn of the century England who dabble in the occult.  I loved them.  Read the first one, then went out and bought the second in hardcover, and read it right away.  Read the last one right after it came out in 2008.  She wrote two stand-alone novels over the next few years, both of which I own, but neither of which I have read.  One seems to be a take-off on The Lord of the Flies, about teenage beauty queens trapped on an island.  I’ll get to it someday.  The other is called Going Bovine and I have no idea what it’s about.  But the title is pretty funny, no? But The Diviners appealed to me on so many levels, I had to get it in hardcover: start of a trilogy, historical fiction, and more dabbling in the occult!  And this time the historical locale is 1920s New York City!  How exciting.

Evie O’Neill is our protagonist.  She has been shipped off to Manhattan to stay with her uncle Will following a bit of a scandal in her hometown of Zenith, Ohio.  See, Evie can “read” objects—she can hold an object and learn all kinds of things about the owner of the object.  All kinds of things, from the trivial to their deepest, darkest secrets.  And she tells everyone something she learned, which the fellow denies, and so off goes Evie to Manhattan.  Her uncle Will runs the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult, and consults for the NYPD on various cases that have an occult/weird feel to them.  Soon after Evie arrives, a string of murders, decidedly with an occult vibe, begin occurring all over town.  The killer becomes known as The Pentacle Killer, and Evie, who always wants to be in the thick of things, realizes that her object reading, or “divining,” may be helpful with the case.  Eventually she gets Will to let her help and she tells him about her ability as a diviner.  They catch the killer (of course they do, that’s not a spoiler, this is a kids book), and at the end Evie “outs” herself to all of NYC as a diviner.  It’s just like the end of the first Iron Man!  Who needs a secret identity, anyway?

This book is plot-driven.  To say that seems silly to me, but I’m starting with the basics here.  There is a cast of thousands, as befits a trilogy of the science-fiction/fantasy genre.  We jump around from one to the other, and I expect in the next book we’ll learn more about how they are all connected and more about what their special gifts are.  There’s Evie, of course; her best friend Mabel Rose, whose parents are socialists; Will’s assistant Jericho who is some sort of robotically enhanced man; Memphis Campbell, the numbers runner and poet and his little brother Isaiah who has some sort of power that involves entering a trance and saying strange things while sleeping; Theta Knight, the Ziegfield girl with the secret past and her “brother” Henry; and Sam Lloyd, the pickpocket who can make himself invisible, kind of.  And there are more denizens of the pages of this monster (it’s over 500 pages), but I’ve touched on the major ones.  I really do have high hopes for the overarching storyline of this series—I think Bray put a ton of work into research and in crafting the backstories of the characters and their motivations.  Oh, and I almost forgot the most important character of all: Prohibition-era New York City itself!  This is where the bulk of the research comes in.  In the Author’s Note at the end of the book, Bray states that “no historians or librarians were harmed in the making of this book, but some were badgered extensively with questions.”  (Aside: isn’t she just adorable for saying that?  I just love her.)  The author really makes NYC come alive.  Here is an example for your reading pleasure: “Outside the Globe Theatre on Forty-Second Street, the lighted marquee blazed Florenz Ziegfeld presents NO FOOLIN’: A Musical Revue Glorifying the American Girl in tall letters.  People in eveningwear drifted into the grand beaux arts theater, excited to see stars like Fanny Brice, Will Rogers, and W.C. Fields, along with the talented singing, dancing chorines and the celebrated Ziegfeld girls, beautiful models who crossed the stage in elaborate headdresses and elegant, barely-there costumes.  It was the epitome of glamour, and Evie could scarcely believe they were taking their very own seats up in the curved balcony beside all the swells in their furs and jewels (155).”

Now one of the ways that Libba Bray helps to make the era come alive is by using a ton of what I assume is historically accurate slang.  Or she just made up a bunch of crazy stuff for people to say.  But I think it’s accurate.  Some of this historically accurate slang is just annoying, but I suppose that’s par for the course with slang, in general.  For example, Evie says things like “pos-i-tute-ly!” and ends words in “-ski” for no apparent reason.  She also says things like “I thought you were the duck’s quack (157),” and “She is the elephant’s eyebrows (155)” which I assume both mean something favorable, but who knows?  There is a moderate amount of description of clothing, but I didn’t feel like it was done in an obtrusive way, and besides, how else will we know what flappers dressed like?  And by the way, why, oh, why would one call one’s evening finery “glad rags”?  Kids these days….

Evie comes to New York City a party girl, a flapper, but a person who hasn’t seen as much of the world as she thinks she has.  She is seventeen, and reading this as an old lady (in the world of young adult fiction I sort of am one), I see a kid who is in way too much of a hurry to grow up.  At seventeen, most kids think they’re adults, and of course most adults know differently.  Evie gets what she wants, but she ends up seeing a bunch of stuff she wishes she could unsee.  And a demon/ghost creature almost kills her to boot.  By the end of the book she has grown up a lot, but hasn’t quite lost her flapper sensibilities.  Those flappers were some awesome chicks, I think.  I’m looking forward to “watching” Evie mature into the adult I know she is capable of being.  I have high hopes for her.

I have high hopes for this entire series.  The next book, Lair of Dreams, comes out in August and I really hope I’ve made enough of a dent in my pile of books to be read that I can start it right away.  I’ve got six months, right?  Plenty of time.

This entry was posted in Fiction - Fantasy, Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Fiction - Mystery, Fiction - Young Adult, Libba Bray, Reviews by Jill. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to In which Jill revisits a beloved genre and reviews a young adult novel: My review of Libba Bray’s The Diviners

  1. bedstrom says:

    I’ve been thinking all day long about what you wrote here about historically accurate slang. Every time I try to incorporate 1940’s slang into my own writing, my characters start sounding like a bunch of Bulgarian tourists at Disney world: “Yes, we had level one American very good fun time!” and that sort of thing. Slang is hard.

    • badkitty1016 says:

      I’m sure it is–it’s sort of a foreign language with unwritten rules of grammar and vocabulary. I just wonder if people actually said that things were “the elephant’s eyebrows….” I wish that Libba Bray would find my post and tell me if she made that one up or if it’s real!

      • bedstrom says:

        I’m assuming those are variations on “the cat’s meow” and “the bee’s knees.” Those I know are real. Bray may have been trying to evoke those expressions by using variations – so her slang is invented, but is intended to sort of echo the original.

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