The Diviners - Libba Bray

The Diviners (The Diviners, #1)


Libba Bray

 ♫Some people make a fuss
When a book goes wrong
Some start to swear and cuss
Others sing a song
I don't do either
That's all napoo
When a plot goes wrong for me
I write a cross review!

New York during the Roaring Twenties is like no other time or place. Flappers dance the Charleston with bobbed hair and wild abandon; auto-mobiles clog the streets; jazz and poetry drifts out of Harlem to fascinate the over-bred and jaded moneyed aristocrats; cultures fuse to produce a brash and vibrant world. Yet behind all this is a darkness and despair: the Great War, the War to End all Wars, has been won, yet at the sacrifice of hope. The young people look into their futures and see only conflict and death and resolve to live each day like there is no tomorrow. And in Bray's New York, there is something darker still lurking in New York: a nightmare spirit who has been waiting patiently to return to living world. When an unwise summoning pulls him back to the mortal plane, the whole of the city--and perhaps even the world--is placed in terrible danger. A handful of youths have been born with special talents: Evie O'Neill, a rube up from Ohio anxious to live the glamorous life in New York, Jericho Jones, a stolid young man with a mysterious past, Sam Lloyd, a carefree con man, and Memphis Campbell, a hustler with dreams of being a poet. All are diviners, able to access supernatural powers. If they are not able to band together and harness their skills to stop the bizarre serial killer stalking the streets, New York's days are numbered.

There is nothing wrong with this book. It is a perfectly good, cute story. But it didn't work for me. In fact, it got on my nerves like nails on a chalkboard. My rating has nothing to do with the quality of the story and everything to do with my personal enjoyment. I plan on working off my irritation by exhaustively explaining why this book didn't work for me. Unless you also already read it and are seeking out solidarity in snark, or you are a low-risk reader and don't want to dive in without significant research, just go pick up the book. It's fun, it's cute, it's very kitschy 1920s, and it certainly tries hard. The research is really quite good, the characters probably aren't as irritating as I found them, and you might find the extreme slang usage cute rather than infuriating. If you listen to it on audio, I thought the narrator was fantastic--she's both soothing and great at trying to capture the dialogue and feel of 1926. It's all down to perspective; this book just didn't hit me right.

My problem with the book can be characterized with one adjective: excessive.
Of course, since I suffer from the same sin, I'm not going to leave it just at that. Bray clearly did a tremendous amount of research and has a great enthusiasm to share her knowledge. However, from the length of the book to the number of dangling plot threads to the sheer variety of character perspectives to the attempts at period dialogue, it's all just a little too overdone. When Bray set out to capture the voice of the Roaring Twenties, I think she just tried too hard.

I can understand Bray's fascination with the time period; in fact, I share it. The decade of the 1920s was an incredibly vibrant time. It was an era of changing political, racial, and social roles, of new music and dance and rapid developments in language. Its voracious consumerism devoured everything from technology to illegal substances and exported only one thing: culture. Yet the bright lights served to accentuate the darkness: although the Bright Young Things were outwardly superficial and carefree, their madcap merriment actually disguised a deep and jaded despair. They had survived "the war to end all wars" only to realize that another would likely come within their own lifetimes. I love all aspects of this time, from the silly songs to the deep aching despair, and I really do appreciate the meticulous research that Bray put into this book and the way that she sought to capture the duality and contradictions of the time.

However, I am quite certain that no one on God's green earth has ever talked like Bray's characters. OK, a few of the "guys and dolls" and "frails" and "pals" terminology tossed in here and there adds colour, but no one, even in the time period, could possibly have shoehorned as many 1920s slang terms into their conversation as Bray did. It is ridiculously, absurdly excessive. The language is so self-consciously proud of its slang that it is more reminiscent of the Doctor Who episode with the pigs in Manhattan than the actual voices such as Wodehouse (who actually tends to use more Edwardian terms anyway) or Fitzgerald or Lawrence or Mencken or Lewis or Wharton. One of the characters tags "sistah" and "doll" onto every line he exchanges with a woman; another switches it up by tagging "Sheba" on instead. Evie, the main character, is "abso-posit-o-lutely" mind-numbingly irritating in her use of slang. "Jeepers", you "bet-ski" that she is! After about, oh, maybe a single page, it all stopped being the "duck's quack" and started being irritating, and that left several hundred pages for the annoyance to mount. "And how!" Bray can't have written the book like this; she must have written it in actual English, then gone back, 20s slang dictionary in hand, and, line by line, shoehorned as much "swell" and "swanky" 1920s slang as she could, apparently thinking that more and more slang was just the "cat's particulars"--"and how!" There is no way that any human being, living or dead, thought in terms of this much slang and affected dialogue, "hun", "fo'sho'". Bray might have thought it was the "cat's meow" and the "elephant's eyebrows,"'t work for me. I actually went through the five stages of grief in dealing with it, from denial ("the characters can't be serious--this will end soon!") to anger ("wtf!!") to bargaining ("if it gets a little better, I'll keep reading.") to depression ("this book will never end!") and finally, to acceptance. (By the way, the slang term density in the preceding paragraph is actually lower than that of the book, Lord help us all.)

Even apart from her tendency to love her slang not wisely but too well, I felt that there were other issues with the voice of the story. Bray's historical detail is fantastically accurate, can I put this? Bray writes like a 'twenties tourist rather than a native. All of the protagonists and their sidekicks have remarkably forward-thinking viewpoints about everything from immigration to race to gender. We are treated to a few strawman "debates," from eugenics to race politics, where the evil characters disgorge simplistic diatribes and all, and I mean all of the protagonists dismiss them with twenty-first century savoir faire. The characters have excessive awe of historical figures like Langston Hughes and Agatha Christie who would, in 1926, be at only the cusp of fame. The racial politics are oversimplified from the lack of reaction to a black man hugging a white woman in public to all of the protagonists' ready acceptance of an interracial couple. This is a simplistic and optimistic portrayal of this fascinating time; while the Harlem Renaissance was beginning to bring about a cultural fusion and interracial couples were accepted in specific areas such as Hell's Kitchen, they also had to be carefully hidden and circumspect elsewhere; the KKK was actually gaining strength and vocality in the North. Bray mentions in her bio that she was a PK (preacher's kid) and I'm going to take a stab in the dark and guess that she has a...complicated relationship with religion. 0% of the characters who have strong religious beliefs are portrayed positively, every character with more than three brain cells is an atheist, and the villains base their motives on a bizarre Christian-inspired doctrine. Again, this is a shame, since an exploration of dynamics between the renunciation of religion by jaded flappers and the revivification of AME and pentecostal churches is fascinating and would have been accentuated and brought into the public eye during the Scopes trial of 1925.

Speaking of characters, none of them really worked for me. Again, there's nothing wrong with them, and I strongly suspect the slang thing contributed to my general dislike for all and sundry. I cannot believe that any human being could possibly be as vapid, idiotic, and irritating as Evie without someone shoving her rubber comforter down her throat when she was a baby, "not-on-your-life-ski". Despite the excess of words, many of the characters were portrayed via awkward segues into their back-stories and a lot of showing rather than telling, but no matter how many times Bray tells me that Evie is a vibrant and charismatic person, I'm not going to like her any better. The narration was colourful and did quite a good job of bringing the world of New York to life, but it also tended to dip into purple prose and Instant Paraphrase. If all the direct recapitulations of previous descriptions were removed, I'd bet you could edit out at least a third of the book--there were multiple instances I thought my audiobook was repeating tracks because the recapitulations were so similar. I can actually summarize in a paragraph or so what happened in the book--that just shouldn't be possible, given how long it is. The plot was far from tight; the "scare style" is something like a slasher film, which I found often disgusting but never heart-racing, so one of my key enjoyments in the book was trying to see how early I could pick out the redshits. It was also definitely a series setup, something that I personally resent, especially given the clichés such as "a storm is coming" that Bray threw around.

I spent a lot of time whining and grumbling in this review, and it's mainly because of the slang, the overwritten style, and what I saw as a rather rambling plot. However, Bray's research really is thorough, and if you're a more patient and easy-going individual than I am, I think it is a very entertaining read. It will definitely give you a taste of the twenties.

So... if you're blue and you don't know what to read through,
Just ignore my crits and see if this book fits.