A review of The Diviners by Libba Bray
Published 2012, Little, Brown
In spite of the adage, we all judge a book by its cover. Especially if you find yourself in the type of book store that shrink-wraps its “browsing” copies and you have nothing else to go on.
The cover of my copy of The Diviners just told me to purchase it: the front cover was designed well and reflected the era and aura of the narrative; the back cover informed me that the author (who I will be reading for the first time) has previously been awarded for her work, and is also a best-selling author. The blurb tells me of murder, supernatural powers, and secrets—a LOT of secrets.
And that can be a good thing. Mystery is a necessary ingredient of a good murder story. Well, if it pays off. In this book, there’s a very solid divide between the awesome mystery and the awful mystery.
Let’s start off with the awesome. I would really have to commend the author for creating such a cryptic and creepy character in Naughty John, the murderous evil spirit roaming the streets of 1920s Manhattan and perfect villain of the story.
The scenes of Naughty John going about his ‘work’ are just plain horrifying. All told from his preys’ perspectives, these unfortunate encounters are described in terrifying detail. So much that the fear was exhilarating, tangible, and mine.
Ruta’s heart fluttered wildly and her legs jellied. This had been a terrible mistake. She would leave at once. Ruta turned and watched in horror as the last of the illusion crumbled and the house transformed before her eyes into a dark, rotting hole, the rot crawling up the walls to meet her. The smell hit her like a punch, making her gag. And there were rats. Oh, god, how she hated rats. With a little cry, Ruta stumbled forward, as if she could outrun the dark coming to get her. Where was the door? It was nowhere to be found! Almost as if the house were keeping it from her. As if it wanted to keep her here.
That’s probably half as scary as the rest of the scene gets, but I wouldn’t dream of spoiling that (or any of the many other terrifying scenes) for anyone. I would definitely recommend the book to those with a love for scary stories.
That said, I’m on the fence as to whether the horror value of this book outweighs its excesses. Quantitatively, and generously, I would put the Naughty John material at probably half of the 600 pages of this book. I think the 300 pages spent on what was needed in this book are enough to make it stand as the first installment of a series, an introduction of the main characters plus a first adventure or challenge to bond them.
Those two things do happen in this book. The main characters come together as a team to catch Naughty John, and we get to know Evie, a precocious, attention-seeking, 17-year-old wannabe-flapper with the titular divining powers. We are also introduced to Uncle Will, curator of what Manhattanites fondly call The Museum of the Creepy Crawlies. There’s also Jericho, Uncle Will’s big and brooding assistant with a secret. And Sam, a pick-pocketing charmer with a secret. Everybody has a secret in this book. And in this book, everybody’s a lot.
Because aside from those four I’ve already mentioned — who were the only pivotal characters for the Naughty John arc — there are Mabel, Theta, Henry, Memphis, Isaiah, the green-eyed girl, Sister Walker, and two old ladies whose names I now forget. All these characters, save for Mabel, at some point in the novel were revealed to have some kind of mystical ability. Some of their powers were revealed, some were kept unknown until the end of the book, which did not make sense if the author was going for a lumpsum introduction of absolutely everybody.
These “other” characters provided a lot of dimension to the story, raising issues we take for granted at present and some that continue to be a challenge today. On the other hand, it felt a bit heavy-handed. For one thing, I don’t think you need to give each character their own baggage to make them interesting. It seriously felt like the author listed all the problems she could think of (liberal during a conservative era, battered wife, gay, colored, abandoned, sick, etc) and raffled them off among the characters she created.
Did anything happen to them? In passing, probably, and nothing where they could not have been replaced by a situational character the narrative just needed at that point, and who the reader doesn’t have to get to know or invest in. The real question though is did I care? Sad and only answer: no. I could have done without knowing any of them, at least at this point. I guess they would all play certain significant roles in the next installment/s of the series, and I just wish they were left out of this one and introduced only when they would become important. Six hundred is a lot of pages to ask of a reader * and I think the author was remiss in her responsibility to make it worth her readers’ while.
I hope the next installment isn’t as long as this one. Or if it is, I hope the length is crucial. Thing is, because of my experience with this book, which half-annoyed half-excited me, I’m still thinking about reading the next book (coming out Aug 2014). Then if I’m also judging by the cover, I may just be spared from finding out.
* Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell was over a thousand pages long, but I didn’t mind. Of course, because of its length and narrative style, I couldn’t possibly recommend it to young readers. But reading adults should have no excuse. It’s absolutely worth it.