The prologue of Libba Bray’s The Diviners (Little, Brown 2012) finds a ditzy debutante worried that her 18th birthday party is turning out to be a big snoozefest. Naturally this would be a tragedy of epic proportions so she breaks out her newly acquired antique Ouija board for some seance fun. It’s 1926 and the occult is all the rage (along with jazz and under-the-table hooch) so it actually works. Those crazy kids raise a spirit who calls himself Naughty John and starts spelling out “Whore” over and over, so you know he’s a real prince of a ghost. In their haste to move on to the next fun activity, they neglect to bind the spirit back to the board, but I’m sure there won’t be any negative consequences to THAT decision.
Elsewhere, party girl Evie O’Neill has been banished from her small Ohio town after announcing that the town golden boy has knocked up a local chambermaid. The boy’s parents are demanding a public apology, but Evie refuses to give one because she knows it’s true. See, she has the ability to psychically divine all sorts of things by touching an object and tends to trot out this ability when she gets drunk at parties. So she’s shipped off to live in New York City with her Uncle Will, a professor and curator of the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult (aka the Museum of of Creepy Crawlies). Also running around New York City are:
- Jericho Jones – Uncle Will’s stoic assistant/ward. He has a mysterious past.
- Sam Lloyd – a con artist with the talent of going unnoticed. He develops a thing for Evie and has a mysterious past.
- Mabel Rose – Evie’s serious best friend who is the dutiful daughter of well-known communist rabble-rousers. She’s pretty boring.
- Memphis Campbell – a black Harlem numbers-runner who’s charming on the outside and tortured on the inside. He just wants to write poetry and take care of his little brother, but he has a mysterious past haunting him.
- Theta Knight – this glamourous Ziegfeld girl lives in Uncle Will’s building and is running from her mysterious past.
- Henry Dubois – Theta’s “brother,” roommate, and piano accompanist. He doesn’t get much to do, but I’m sure he has a mysterious past too.
Oh, and Evie is not the only character here with special powers. Anyway, when Uncle Will is asked to consult on the brutal, ritualistic murder of a young girl, Evie accidentally touches something that gives her insight into the murder. From there, Evie, Will, and Jericho race against time to stop the psycho serial killer and possibly armageddon as more mutilated bodies pile up. If you’ve realized that the prologue might have something to do with this plot, then you’ve clearly read a book before. While that’s going on, the characters begin to meet and connect in ways that I’m sure set up the other three books in the series.
My love of thieves and spies is pretty well-known by this point, but have I mentioned how much I love stories about people with special powers? It all started when I read Matilda as a kid and ever since then, I’ve been a sucker for them. Probably because I not-so-secretly wish I had super powers. Though not just any super power. Telepathy or talking to the dead would suck, but I would love teleportation or telekinesis. Because I’m lazy. So hearing that Libba Bray, whose book Beauty Queens I loved so much, was writing a supernatural series about people with special powers I was psyched. Psyched enough to overlook my usual aversion to historical fiction. I usually get too distracted by the historical details and vernacular to full enjoy the story. Also, the real-world treatment of women and minorities during those time periods makes me feel stabby, which also makes it hard to fully enjoy the story.
Unfortunately, I was underwhelmed. The narrative feels overly stuffed and I think Bray is trying to do too much here. Granted, Beauty Queens, my only other Libba Bray experience, was similar so maybe that’s her style, but since that was a hilarious satire, it didn’t bother me so much. The central murder mystery is very strong (and gross), but I couldn’t get into the rest of the story. Now I know that a lot of set up is required with a world this complex, but the non serial killer parts felt like nothing but set-up. Eventually it was like, “oh, here’s another scene where someone hints ominously about some vague threat in the future. And SURPRISE, everyone is mysterious.”
There is much to like in this book. The writing is great and the characters, while not always likeable, are interesting and sympathetic. I just couldn’t get into it as much as I wanted to and I’m not sure if I’ll be picking up the next book in the series.