The Diviners by Libba Bray.
Libba Bray comes and goes for me – I loved Going Bovine, but tried and mostly failed with more than one of the A Great and Terrible Beauty. I wasn’t quite sure which way this new book would go, especially since so many other people did love her first fantasy series. Still, I heard so many things about it that I thought I’d give it a try, even though it is a commitment at almost 700 pages – the audio version is 15 discs long.
This is a book of contrasts, with the bright fun of the flapper culture in New York of the 1920s contrasted with the grim realities of life for the poor and immigration, bound together in a tale of a doomsday cult tying into magic that is darker and stronger than they realize. A group of diverse older teens comes together almost accidentally, but bond over their similar dark dreams and an assortment of occult powers that they keep secret, things like reading history in objects, healing, and prophetic dreams. We are introduced to one after another of them, most coming together gradually as the story goes on, including a would-be happy-go-lucky Evie from Ohio; her serious best friend and the daughter of political reformers, Mabel; an African-American poet and numbers runner named Memphis; and Ziegfield girl Theta and her gay composer roommate Henry. Evie comes and tries to shake things up at her uncle’s struggling museum, popularly known as the Creepy Crawly Museum, and quickly gets drawn into more serious things – a series of clearly ritual murders that look like the work of a Doomsday cult trying to raise the Beast. This is much more horror than I usually read – Bray gives us third-person narrative from the perspective of nearly all of the murder victims, to maximize the fright. She has one of the hallmarks of good horror, which is that though there are plenty of creepy supernatural elements, the scariest parts are all real, things that people really have done or believed. I had to keep reading for the characters, but this really was too scary for my sensitive soul, and I had to stop reading it at bedtime. The plot wraps up fairly tidily, but it’s clear that this is the first of a series. I’ll hope for a more cohesive knowledge of the team that’s implied in the name Diviners than actually came about in this book. This is a solid teen book – maybe a bit too scary and suggestive for younger kids, but nothing to make it inappropriate for teens. If you like atmospheric historical fantasy on the dark side, this is an excellent choice.