Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Diviners by Libba Bray

The Diviners (The Diviners, #1)The Diviners by Libba Bray
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Listened to the audio version produced by Listening Library. Narration by January Lavoy.

This book had popped up several times on my radar of late; it looked like a lot of fun and was getting some good reviews. Plus I’ve been on a roll with good young adult books of late so I thought I’d give it a whirl.

The Diviners is a little bit epic. It’s a mish mash of genres, mostly falling under the speculative fiction label; it has a bit of horror, mystery, thriller, and historical fiction. It is set in 1920’s New York and has a pretty large of cast of characters headed up by 17 year old Evie who is sent from Ohio to stay with her Uncle Will after a scandal involving her strange ability to read people’s secrets from their possessions. In order of prevalence, the rest of the primary cast is:

Memphis Campbell: A good hearted Harlem numbers runner who, as a child, could heal people miraculously but who now protects his little brother who has some strange abilities of his own. He wishes to be a poet like Langston Hughes.
Theta: A dancer at the Ziegfield Follies, also has some strange abilities and shares a dream with Memphis.
Jericho: Will’s ward with a mysterious past and, inexplicably, a thing for Evie.
Will: Evie’s Uncle who runs a museum of the occult and is a scholar on the subject.
Sam: A con artist who weasels his way into a job at Will’s museum because he’s got a mysterious vendetta and also, you guessed it, some strange abilities. Inexplicably, he also has a thing for Evie.
Mabel: Evie’s penpal /friend who lives just upstairs from Will’s apartment. Has a thing for Jericho.

And that’s just the main characters and doesn’t include anything about the big bad. The book’s mystery kicks off with a gruesome and ritualistic murder which has implications that may lead to an apocalypse. It is hinted that the only folks that may have a chance to stand up to the evil that’s coming are, you guessed it, those with strange abilities, collectively called Diviners.

I am really conflicted about this book.

As may be apparent simply from the synopsis and list of characters, this is a pretty immense and ambitious book with a relatively complex story that, despite being rather baggy, was still interesting and enjoyable. It is mostly just set up for what will likely be an epic series of books but the back stories and tangential plots are all still interesting so I didn’t mind too much that the narrative could have been tighter and flowed better. The writing is well done and a definite mood is set with the creepy bits being truly creepy and scary. There is plenty of humor as well which helps balance the darker elements of the book.

Unfortunately, while I could overlook the novel’s lack of focus and flow there were a couple of problems that interfered pretty heavily in my reading (listening) enjoyment
The first one I would say is relatively minor though it was really annoying to me: the excessive use of flapper slang and the awkward way it and 1920’s trivia were shoe-horned into the book. This is especially egregious and noticeable in the first third of the book but it’s a problem throughout. It’s like Bray had a list of “well known things and places associated with the 1920’s” that she had to include and instead of incorporating these subtly into the creation of setting she just slathered them on top. It was jarring, awkward, generally unsuccessful in “setting the scene” and excessive. And if Evie said ‘pos-i-toot-ly’ one more time, I was going to take a case all the way to the Supreme Court to make sure this abomination of a word was banned from ever being revived as slang.

The major issue I ran into with this book was the characters. I had a really hard time engaging with some of the characters and, in fact, came to violently dislike Evie. She annoyed me so much that I had to occasionally just turn the book off and take a break. Because Evie is the most prominent perspective character and, if anything becomes more prominent in the final third of the book, being actively irritated by her was a pretty big obstacle to engaging with the book. She’s selfish, shallow, thoughtless, vain, self-involved, arrogant, materialistic, and obnoxious. Bray tries to make a case that there is more to her than meets the eye and that her party girl exterior is there to mask inner woe. But it really didn’t work for me…at all. I want to stress that I didn’t feel this was a case of the author doing a bad job creating a realistic person; Evie was believably a 17 year old girl; she is just not someone I would ever want to spend time with…ever. Even if I was closer to 17 in age Adding insult to injury is that Evie is installed as the object of desire in a developing love triangle with two of the male characters which I initially liked, but their inexplicable lack of judgment where Evie was concerned effected how I felt about them as well.

I also wasn’t that crazy about Theta though the dislike was much milder. In one of the first scenes where we get her perspective she walks into a Follies rehearsal an hour late and justifiably is scolded by the stage manager, she responds by putting out her cigarette in his coffee. That’s just wrong to mess with someone’s coffee and seriously bitchy and well I think it’s quite clear I would have made the worst flapper ever. Rebellious scorner of authority I am not. Theta did grow on me a bit as we learn her backstory but there was also the WTH moment of Memphis and she falling in lurve out of the damn blue which undermined both characters for me. As an aside, Theta wasn’t helped by the fact that the narrator chose to read her with a Mae West-esque voice. Ugh.

The two characters I actually identified with the most, Mabel and Will are provided with the least amount of development and Will is undermined by the end of the book because he lets his 17 year old, very obnoxious niece (Evie) start bossing him around and judging him. Grow a pair Will and lock that kid in her room for the foreseeable future please! At the very end of the book Mabel seems to be getting set up to be “used for nefarious purposes” by a handsome guy in her parents circle which doesn’t bode well for my enjoyment of future books.

So the characters were a bit of an issue for me if that isn’t abundantly clear. I may be one of the few to have this reaction however as I’ve read other reviews that have described Evie just as I have above but then say what a great character that made her. Unfortunately for me, characters are probably the single most important element of a story and if I cannot identify or engage with them I get really cranky. If you are similar you might have some issues as well.

I guess I had a few things to say about this one:). So, will I continue with the series? I think I will try. I am curious about the story and where it will go and I actually like the character of Mabel enough to see if she is developed more in future books. I do dread having to spend more time with Evie however and am hoping she becomes more of an ensemble character rather than the heroine of future books.

I will also take a minute to recommend the audio which was overall really excellent with the exception of my nitpick about Theta’s voice. The number of characters she had to voice was impressive and she did a fantastic job with all but Theta in my opinion.

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