The Diviners by Libba Bray

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Genre: Historical/Fantasy

A Young Adult Library Services Association 2013 Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults pick

I didn’t realize who the author of this book was until I was a little ways into it, and when I did my initial reaction was, “Ugh….Libba Bray.” If you’re not familiar with her, Bray is the author of the Gemma Doyle trilogy which starts with A Great and Terrible Beauty. Needless to say, I wasn’t a huge fan of those books. Her writing is terribly unsubtle and unsophisticated and lacks a certain purpose to it.

The Diviners is the story of a young woman, Evie, who leaves her small midwestern town to live with her uncle in New York City. The story is set at the height of the 1920s, and Bray makes sure you know this. She just about whacks you over the head with 1920s culture references: Rudolph Valentino, flappers, jazz, socialists, bobbed hair, Ziegfeld girls, speakeasies…if it screams 1920s, it’s in here. Edie peppers her sentences with obnoxious 1920s slang.

Anyway, Edie’s uncle runs a museum of the occult, and the characters soon become entangled in helping to solve a series of gruesome murders because of their arcane trappings. Trying to sum this book up is giving me a headache because there’s just so much of it. It’s told from several points of view, and most of the characters have some sort of strange ability – for example, Edie can read personal details about people just bey holding something of theirs. Somehow this relates to the murders, which have to do with some ancient evil connected to a cult. And the evil is like trying to take over the world or something. I read all 578 pages and I’m still not sure.

The story veered from obnoxious and overbearing, to somewhat compelling, to just frustrating and long. Bray takes way too many page to tell the story, and I got really impatient reading it. The 1920s references got less annoying as the book went on and she stopped trying to so hard to establish the setting and focused more on the characters. And some of the characters were interesting. The two major gripes I had with this book (yes, I haven’t even gotten to my major gripes yet) were:

1. Whyyyyyyy does every book need to be part of a series??? 578 pages, and this book raises more questions than it answers. Yes, the immediate danger was wrapped up, but it leaves you with the sense (actually, the character explicitly tell you on more than one occasion) that “this is only the beginning.” It never really gets into who or what “The Diviners” are. The most interesting part of the book is all the characters with special abilities, and none of that is every explained, which I’ll get to in a moment. I just want to finish my rant about series. I know that writing serial stories is a long standing literary tradition, but I am so, so, so tired of every single YA book being published lately being a series. I know it’s probably a money thing and that series aren’t inherently bad, I just miss the days when I could read a wonderful book that wrapped things up nicely between two covers. And yes, I know some authors still do this, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule.  I also feel like the series I loved in my youth – Anne of Green Gables, Redwall, Little House on the Prairie, etc – were different in that each of those books stood alone as a satisfying story. Not so today. /Rant

2. I’m so tired of reading YA books in which the following conversation takes place:

Youthful protagonist: Tell me what’s going on!

Adult: No, it’s too dangerous. I can’t tell you.

YP: But it pertains directly to me and my life.

A: No, it’s for your own good. Just trust me.

Etc, etc ad nauseum

I basically just boiled the entire Harry Potter series down to four lines, but this is a conversation people have over and over and over again in YA books. I had a conversation about this with a friend recently, and she suggested that perhaps it’s symbolic of the fact that adults never tell kids anything, and she has an excellent point. I had just assumed authors were trying to build suspense and instead just irritating the crap out of me. I think one thing I liked about Mr. Penubra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was that things were explained pretty clearly early on so they could get down to the business of solving the actual mystery. Edie’s uncle knows a LOT more than he tells her about The Diviners and who/what she is and what her purpose is and what exactly is going on, but he refuses to tell Edie, so the reader is left in the dark too. I know Bray is going for the slow reveal, but if it goes any slower no one is going to be interested by the time she gets there.

I just thought of my third gripe, which is that this book can’t seem to decide if it’s for kids or adults. It’s written to appeal to a YA audience but there are a few things that suddenly make you think it’s an adult book. There is some light drug use mentioned and lots of alcohol use. There’s also a rape and subsequent abortion described.

It’s probably high interest and would be best suited to 9th or 10th graders but will probably be read by 7th and 8th graders as well. But they have to have high interest to make it through all – again – 578 pages.

Teaching resources:

Author’s website: http://libbabray.com/

Book website: http://thedivinersseries.com/

Brief Libba Bray interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G3wdRPSsqTQ

Overview of the 1920s: http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/era.cfm?eraid=13&smtid=1

About Florenz Ziegfeld and his Follies: http://www.musicals101.com/ziegfeld.htm  

The Harlem Renaissance: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/255397/Harlem-Renaissance

Sample essay prompts based on past MCAS Exam essay prompts:

1. Often in works of literature, a character encounters a situation that requires courage. Select a character from The Diviners who encounters a situation that requires courage. In a well-developed composition, identify the character, describe how the character reacts to the situation that requires courage, and explain how the character’s actions are important to the work as a whole.

2. In many works of literature, a character must adjust to life in a new environment. Select a character from The Diviners who must adjust to life in a new environment. In a well-developed composition, identify the character, describe how the character adjusts to life in a new environment, and explain how the character’s adjustment relates to the work as a whole.

3. Works of literature often feature young characters who are in conflict with the adult world. Select a young character from The Diviners who is in conflict with the adult world. In a well-developed composition, identify the character, describe how the character is in conflict with the adult world, and explain how the conflict relates to the work as a whole.

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  1. Pingback: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman | Peggy Power!

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