Updated: Oct 12, 2018
My main point with this post, if I can get this across and nothing else, is how great The Diviners, by Libba Bray, is. To me it is the perfect Halloween read. It is creepy and funny with lovable characters, and at times verging towards wanting to stash the book in the freezer scary, but I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to true horror stories.
I think one of the most important parts of this book is the setting: New York City in the 1920s and the epicentre of the Jazz Era. It was an electric time, but can we talk for a minute about how creepy the 1920s were? The Jazz Age was a society on the cusp of modernity, raising humanity up to dazzling heights. Extravagant luxury built on the back of human suffering, as many forgotten people were struggling to survive. Perhaps it is easier to see that time for what it was from our vantage point: a brief respite; an uneasy truce suspended between two world-shattering wars.
And there was also that obsession with spiritualism that brings the creepy. The Diviners starts with an unspeakably terrifying game on the Ouija board. Does anyone actually enjoy spirit boards or do we just like to frighten ourselves a little bit. I used to have a board, but no more. They freak me out too much. I actually considered trying to find an older one to take a sweet shot for this blog post, but I realized I didn’t actually want one in my house. Anyway, Bray uses the creepy board to tremendous effect. From there, we meet the sweet and sassy cast of “Diviners,” young people with special gifts. They come together and start ghost hunting, being romantic and sexy with each other as they go. And all the while there is a horrifying evil presence hovering somewhere in Midwest America and makes me think of a scarecrow, and evil scarecrows are one of my biggest phobias. (Is there a name for that phobia?)
The second book in the series, Lair of Dreams, was also very good. Sometimes when you fall hard for a book, the next one in a series has a hard time living up to expectations, but this one delivered. And more Diviners arrived to create a real group of rebels. Bray really starts to get into what is at the heart of the American dream: so many people hoping for a better life, but in reality America was created on the back unspeakable horrors. It wasn't just old fashioned values and hard work, but also slavery and genocide.
All of which brings me to the most recent book in the series, Before the Devil Breaks You, which I just read and feel a deep need to discuss, as this is a book with TEETH. Libba Bray has something to SAY, y’all. The book really hits on a lot of the points I feel about the wrongness of the 1920s – the anti-immigration sentiments, the isolationism of America, the support of major public figures by the KKK and other right-wing hate groups, the prevalent political slogans of “America First” … oops, I’m suffering from déjà vu! Where am I again?
And the actual repeating of history that is going on right now in this day and age is Bray’s point here, I think. Thank you for getting political with this beautiful book. The discussion of the eugenics program was perhaps the most horrifying part of this horror book because it actually happened. Except for the part about trying to find Diviners to power a machine that has access to the otherworld (as far as I know).
Politics aside, I also appreciated the fact that Bray allows her characters, young adults, to actually have sex. Nowadays, it seems as though YA books are so cleaned up and chaste that kissing is the extent of a romantic relationship, if you’re lucky. And that is so not reality. Young adults have sex, and it can be healthy and filled with love. Huge bonus points for really showing the difference between consensual sex and not, and the depths of abusive relationships. How you can love someone and be attracted to them and still not be okay with what they are doing to you.
Before you think the book is all dull and preachy, let me stop you right there, because it is anything but. They are FUN, and funny and flirty, and I defy you to not fall in love with the heartfelt characters.
Come for the horror and the fun, stay for the very important social messages on tolerance and acceptance!