Libba Bray first made a name for herself with the Gemma Doyle trilogy, an irreverent historical fantasy series set in the late Victorian period. Since then, she's taken a break from historical fiction with two terrific books of satire and humor --- GOING BOVINE and BEAUTY QUEENS --- but now she's back to the past with THE DIVINERS, launching a new trilogy set in New York City in 1926. Like the Gemma Doyle trilogy, THE DIVINERS has a supernatural bent. However, this new series verges on horror as a group of young people, united by circumstances and by secret talents, join together to stop a serial killer.
"THE DIVINERS is the perfect start to a trilogy...Readers will likely tear through this large but eminently readable novel and arrive at the final page both dreading and anticipating what will come next."
Seventeen-year-old Evie O'Neill leaves her small Ohio hometown in disgrace, after a parlor trick goes horribly wrong. She's more than eager to stay with her Uncle Will who lives in a crumbling apartment building right in Manhattan, where Evie knows she can escape her humdrum roots and finally live the glamorous life she knows she was destined for. At first, New York is everything she had hoped for --- the speakeasies, the movie palaces, the fashionable nightlife. But soon, Evie is haunted, like the rest of the city, by a violent killer in their midst.
Unlike others in New York, Evie has a very particular connection to the killer --- the supernatural. Her uncle runs the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult, and he's soon drawn into the investigation when it becomes apparent that the murderer has a supernatural intention in mind. What's more, Evie has her own psychic powers that may help with the investigation…and that may also put her in the path of the killer.
What Evie doesn’t know is that she's surrounded by other young people like herself who appear normal on the outside but secretly have their own psychic powers. Exactly how their powers will be harnessed is not yet determined --- all the reader knows at the end is that these Diviners will play a significant role in future struggles to come. For now, these young people are just friends --- but as storm clouds gather, it's certain they'll become much more to each other as Bray's series continues.
Bray has obviously done her research: THE DIVINERS is suffused with the spirit and character of the 1920s in everything from the music to the slang. The importance of understanding history is, in fact, at the center of the novel. Evie's Uncle Will comments to that effect: "'There is no greater power on this earth than story,'" he tells Evie and his mysterious young assistant Jericho. "People think boundaries and borders build nations. Nonsense --- words do. Beliefs, declarations, constitutions --- words. Stories. Myths. Lies. Promises. History.'" Evie might be less enthusiastic about history. At one point, she laments that she thought library research would be different: "'I thought research would be more glamorous, somehow. I'd give the librarian a secret code word and he'd give me the one book I needed and whisper the necessary page numbers. Like a speakeasy. With books.'" In the end, though, even Evie comes to see the value of understanding and respecting the past.
Bray also does a fantastic job blending this historical environment with her supernatural storyline. Throughout THE DIVINERS, she shows how all her characters are haunted --- if not by ghosts and demons, then by the specters of the past. Will has a lost love, Evie’s brother was killed in the Great War, Theta fled an abusive past, Jericho suffered from polio, so on and so forth. The world Bray portrays is not just one of flappers and movie stars, it's a portrait of a city and a country that's still deeply scarred from a recent war and that's starting to see the horrors --- in the form of economic uncertainty, racist groups, and unrest overseas --- that lie ahead. THE DIVINERS is the perfect start to a trilogy: it both wraps up one major story line and leaves the door open for future exploration of character and plot. Readers will likely tear through this large but eminently readable novel and arrive at the final page both dreading and anticipating what will come next.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on September 18, 2012