Every worth-her-salt fan of historical YA fantasy has at least heard of the Gemma Doyle trilogy, Libba Bray’s first published series of novels. The trilogy was notable for its skillful blend of sardonic wit, romantic Victorian backdrops, and heartbreaking coming of age moments. Bray has written two fantastic novels since the Gemma Doyle trilogy wrapped up in 2007, including the hysterically twisted Going Bovine, for which she won the sought-after Michael L. Printz Award, but the many whose hearts and minds were initially charmed by Bray’s historical fantasy clamoured for her to return to her debut genre. The Diviners is Bray’s answer to those pleas.
Set in Manhattan during the Roaring Twenties, The Diviners tells the story of Evie O’Neill, a thoroughly modern flapper girl who possesses the mysterious ability to read people’s histories and secrets by holding any object that personally belongs to them. When Evie’s talents get her booted from her Ohio hometown and shipped off to stay with her uncle in New York City, she immediately falls in with the city’s exciting nightlife of dancing, speakeasies, and bathtub gin. She also becomes involved with the mystery of the Pentacle Killer, a vicious zealot with ties to the occult and supernatural who is terrorizing New York with his increasingly gruesome murders.
While Evie shares the spotlight with with a wide and varied cast and a half dozen other narrators, she still comes out of the novel as the clear protagonist, and one I can’t help but continually root for. Bray is a master at portraying the vulnerability and projected arrogance that go hand-in-hand with adolescence, and Evie, who is equal parts brash party girl and crushingly insecure, is a great example of this. When she frets that she is unlovable, that she will always laugh too loud or take the dares that she shouldn’t, I sympathize with her. When she comes off victorious— whether she’s one upping a con man or making headway in understanding her magical gifts—I want to cheer and clap. Evie is somebody that I’m excited to see grow into a hero.
The setting of New York City in the 1920s also plays extremely well, and this is in no small part due to Bray’s exhaustive research of the era and keen attention to detail. The snappy flapper slang immediately immerses the reader, and it helps the rest of the story rocket along at a breakneck pace. I found myself filing away particularly great pieces of language for future use—phrases like “glad rags,” “posi-tute-ly,” and “a real lulu of a day” have me firmly convinced that prohibition-era slang ought to make a serious comeback.
The Diviners is the first of three planned books, and it does a good job of wrapping up the central plot while still leaving enough open threads to have fans dying to see what happens in book two. Any fans of historical fantasy, of the 1920s, of delectably witty prose, or of a good old fashioned supernatural mystery should really check this one out—The Diviners doesn’t disappoint.