The Diviners by Libba Bray

diviners lair of dreams

4.5 out of 5 stars each

I received an ARC of the second book.

I have not read a ton of fiction set in the late 1920’s (partially because I REALLY hate flapper fashion), but Libba Bray was really worth it. She really sets a scene so well. Some of her chapters, perhaps as an homage to John Steinbeck, start out with a broad description of the time and place (New York) that really draw you into the time period. She also added a bunch of slang and references to activities and people of the time. It is nice to have wikipedia open to look up some of the things she mentions. It would also be a good idea to have a cd of smooth early jazz playing in the background while you read (Libba Bray has some playlists right on her website, http://www.thedivinersseries.com/#!/page=DivinersRadio).

When Evie gets in trouble at home for using her ability to “read” the history of objects, she is packed off to live with her uncle in New York. Since Evie wants to live the big, glamorous lifestyle of the movie and radio stars, it is not the punishment her parents think it will be. Her uncle runs a museum that studies the paranormal and soon after Evie’s arrival he is called in to consult on a rash of ghoulish murders. Evie’s talents may provide a key to stopping the psychopath, if she can harness them in time. Along the way she is joined by other young New Yorkers, some of whom are also harbouring secrets and powers.

In the second book, New York citizens are being plagued by a sleeping sickness, where they are dragged into dreams while their bodies slowly decay. Evie is so occupied by her own stardom as a Diviner that some of her friends have to take over the bulk of the investigation into the phenomenon, especially Ling (a Chinese-American girl) and Henry (a gay aristocrat). This gave the book more of a feel of a companion book instead of a sequel. Evie is almost relegated to a secondary character as some of the people from the first book take the centre stage. I really enjoyed that since I find Evie’s party girl character a lot less appealing than academic Ling and haunted Theta. This book is a bit more abstract than the first, since more of it takes place in a dream world, but it still has the paranormal thrill that characterized the first.

There are a lot of good characters in this series. Libba Bray has provided a cast that spans different races and sexual preferences, something I look for in teen books. Both books deal quite a bit with racism (given the time period it is especially pertinent) and all the characters are flawed enough to come across as human. There are multiple romances going on, but they do not overshadow the main plot. There are friendships and family relationships as well as romantic ones. The books jump between viewpoints, so we see America through African-American, Chinese-American, and European-American lenses. Sometimes I don’t enjoy multiple POV books, but Bray has made her characters distinct enough that it was delightful to get inside of their heads.

Plot-wise, both of these books have more going on than is usual in YA. There is the main strain of the characters hunting down the paranormal threat, but there are a substantial number of side plots. Theta and Memphis struggle with a mixed race relationship in a time period where that did not go over well, even as Memphis is struggling with his own diminished powers, his brother’s reception to the paranormal, and a blind beggar who seems to know more than he is telling. Sam is trying to track down his mother and find out more about the secret government project that may be behind her disappearance and Theta is running from her painful past. The books are never boring since there are so many threads to keep track of.

Between the two I found the first one creepier, since the murders were rather gruesome, and the second one more interesting. I liked the inclusion of a Chinese-American character who takes a more scientific point of view of her powers and tries to think through things rationally. She also provided another example of racism at the time, as she and Memphis are treated differently than the other characters, especially when Chinese immigrants start being blamed for the sleeping sickness. We also get more of the characters meeting each other, so watching them play off of different personalities made them more fleshed out. Libba Bray deals with a lot of issues at the time, from Eugenics and the KKK, to immigration and the people who preyed off of them, to racism and homophobia, so these books would make a great accompaniment to a history lesson on the roaring 20’s.

This series is rich and satisfying.There is wit in the dialogue and the writing flows smoothly. The addition of ghosts and mystery to the late 1920’s works so well that I would readily recommend these to any reader junior high and above (some grade fives and sixes might also be able to handle them, depending on how strong they are at reading).

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