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-tute-ly ecstatic. It’s 1926, and New York is filled with speakeasies, Ziegfeld girls, and rakish pickpockets. The only catch is that she has to live with her uncle Will and his unhealthy obsession with the occult.
Evie worries he’ll discover her darkest secret: a supernatural power that has only brought her trouble so far. But when the police find a murdered girl branded with a cryptic symbol and Will is called to the scene, Evie realizes her gift could help catch a serial killer.
As Evie jumps headlong into a dance with a murderer, other stories unfold in the city that never sleeps. A young man named Memphis is caught between two worlds. A chorus girl named Theta is running from her past. A student named Jericho hides a shocking secret. And unknown to all, something dark and evil has awakened.
This book makes me feel so nostalgic for life in the 1920s New York which is weird because I wasn’t even alive for that decade why do I miss it? Seriously. Is it just me or do other people get homesick from books? You miss the comforting feel of the characters and the world created by the author and wish to stay long after you turn the last page?
The impossible wonder of that era still snags at me and I can’t wait to read the rest of the series!
So, what’s this book?
It’s 1926 and when 17-year-old Evie O’Neill is unceremoniously banished to live in New York with her eccentric bachelor Uncle Will—the curator of a museum of the occult—Evie feels the first fragile unfurling of something she thinks might be freedom. Evie, full and heavy and burdened with a fearsome urgency to live, decides that no rift in the earth will open between her and the greatest adventure of her life. But things seldom go as one might expect, and when a killer passes in secret through the streets of Manhattan and leaves no trace of themselves but fear and a string of gruesome murders, Evie’s uncle is tapped for help in solving them. There’s only horror now as new truths soon come clear to Evie: she must reveal her long-hidden supernatural ability to help the investigation…and she might not be the only one touched with supernatural gifts.
Fear is vying with courage, and courage is winning in this suspense-filled murder mystery, cobbled together with a heady brew of visceral horror, a wicked sense of pace, threat and a lurking delight in causing jarring terror. Libba Bray knows just how to twist the knife to make it hurt oh so good and how to turn the screw to make it almost too stressful to bear. The slow unfurling of every new revelation is tantalizing—you can scarcely feel the shape of it, but it’s clear that everything will change. These mysteries are, of course, the driving heart of the novel but throughout, moments of light and hope and love pierce through the storm clouds, keeping the story from teetering too far into the unrelentingly sinister. Bray is also an incredible writer with a good eye for lyrical text and the audiobook has such a way of enhancing the spine-chilling and ghostly atmosphere she’s crafted.
I’m also hard-put to think of a time period that better captures the eeriness and thrill of a roaring mystery than 1920s New York; the stark contrast between the stately stasis of a respectable house and the desperate wildness of the speakeasy and the Ziegfeld girls is the perfect stage on which to turn a story on its head. We are given a vivid glimpse of a time gone by and it’s evident that the author went through painstaking work to make her world feel real, using period-specific language and detail to deftly create the sense of real places inhabited by relatable, vividly rendered people—all while liberally sprinkling all things magic and monsters and the unaccountable.
But The Diviners is much more than just about solving murder mysteries. It’s also about exploring the lives on their peripheries: tangled character histories and perspectives craftily orbit the plot and the narration, which is told through alternating voices, lingers in their memories and lives.
Evie is both magnetic and obnoxious and there’s a bull-in-china-shop quality to her character. In one vital way, though, she is different than your typical introverted and meek lady lead. It’s a bit amazing, encountering a female protagonist who’s allowed to be loud, self-absorbed and says exactly what she’s thinking, without a lick of tact to make it go down easier. Strange as it sounds, I was grateful for her haughtiness and recklessness even as I sometimes wrinkled my nose at her. I think it works because Evie is also very self-aware, and the narrative acknowledges all of her flaws instead of just taking for granted that Evie’s brashness is an uncontested virtue. It’s also not hard to see that most of the facades Evie puts out are a lie, a ghost, a stage role performed for a very select private audience. Underneath is a frightened, fragile girl, still mourning the death of her big brother and wishing she could be enough for her parents.
Of course this world wouldn’t be as fascinating if it was just Evie soaking up the spotlight. One of this book’s strengths is making every character come alive, step whole and entire onto the page, even if only for the length of a scene or two, including: Memphis Campbell, a young handsome black poet; Sam Lloyd, a rakish Russian pickpocket; Theta Knight, a mysterious dancer running from the ghosts of her pasts and Henry DeBois, her gay musician roommate; alongside, Jericho, Will’s strange assistant. Each of these kids is damaged, trauma lingering in the creases or out in the open, and each of them has a long journey ahead—one that I’m excited to see unfold in the next installments.
It was therefore kind of unfortunate to discover that the last quarter of the book does not quite live up to the high water mark set by the rest of the novel: some characters just conveniently disappear and don’t reappear to influence the narrative at certain points, and others turn up relatively late but play critical roles. Also, the budding of a romance took me off guard and felt unprecedented by everything that has come before.
But at the end of the day, these are two very small quibbles barely marring an immensely engrossing tale—one that I hugely recommend!