The first two (and the only ones so far published) books in the Diviners series are genre-bending, spooky young adult mysteries with tons of characters in intersecting stories, all set during the roaring twenties and featuring tons of historical flourishes. I am incredibly lazy and struggling to write reviews right now, so I’m leaning on Goodreads for these plot descriptions:
The Diviners (3.5 stars) — “Evie O’Neill has been exiled from her boring old hometown and shipped off to the bustling streets of New York City—and she is pos-i-tute-ly ecstatic. It’s 1926, and New York is filled with speakeasies, Ziegfeld girls, and rakish pickpockets. The only catch is that she has to live with her uncle Will and his unhealthy obsession with the occult.
Evie worries her uncle will discover her darkest secret: a supernatural power that has only brought her trouble so far. But when the police find a murdered girl branded with a cryptic symbol and Will is called to the scene, Evie realizes her gift could help catch a serial killer.
As Evie jumps headlong into a dance with a murderer, other stories unfold in the city that never sleeps. A young man named Memphis is caught between two worlds. A chorus girl named Theta is running from her past. A student named Jericho is hiding a shocking secret. And unknown to all, something dark and evil has awakened. . . .”
Lair of Dreams (3 stars) (This plot description doesn’t explicitly spoil The Diviners, but as it is a sequel proceed with caution in reading the following) — “After a supernatural showdown with a serial killer, Evie O’Neill has outed herself as a Diviner. Now that the world knows of her ability to “read” objects, and therefore, read the past, she has become a media darling, earning the title, “America’s Sweetheart Seer.” But not everyone is so accepting of the Diviners’ abilities…
Meanwhile, mysterious deaths have been turning up in the city, victims of an unknown sleeping sickness. Can the Diviners descend into the dreamworld and catch a killer?”
Each book has its own monster and contained plot, but there are indications of the larger arc coming together. I really enjoyed the historical setting, and the mystery, and I appreciated the diverse and multidimensional characters, even if Evie was occasionally obnoxious. That obnoxiousness is mostly pronounced in the second book, with a very tired subplot of Evie getting famous and ditching her friends, which is just a very done story that I am not interested in reading. It undermined Evie’s character as someone who was a bit self-absorbed, but was ultimately loyal and a team player. The sequel took away that nuance and made her more of a caricature.
Where I really had trouble, with both books, was in their length and, in my view, dragging out the mystery. From reading other reviews, the mileage may vary, but I believe both books suffered from too many extended passages detailing the demise of the killers’ latest victims. Where one or two of each would have been sufficient, it seemed like almost every chapter opened with a new sequence; to be fair, I listened to the audiobooks so I wasn’t clear on the literal chapter breaks, but they definitely punctuate a fair number of new “sections.” I don’t believe they were included for the shock factor or anything salacious, since the scenes aren’t all gratuitously gory (though some of the CSI-style investigative scenes are fairly graphic.) I believe they were supposed to contribute to the overall creepy tone, but the tension and anxiety inherent in horror were, I believe, undercut by these and other significant tangents that derailed the progress of the main story.
It’s possible that some of what I took to be tangents or set dressing may come to play a larger part in the later books when they are released, but I think there is something to be said for focusing more on just a few features in each book to keep the story more tight. For instance, there is a subplot with one of the characters, Memphis, his younger brother, Isaiah, their aunt, and an older man who hangs around their neighborhood, Old Bill Johnson. Memphis and Isaiah are Diviners, Old Bill apparently used to have powers but has lost them, and aunt Octavia is super religious and sees manifestations of powers as the Devil’s work. So there is a ton of going around and back and forth where the two boys are trying to learn more about their abilities but hiding from their aunt, and Old Bill starts to get greedy and villainous and see if he can feed off of Isaiah’s powers to heal himself. I suspect this is all going somewhere, but it’s another case where a seemingly significant amount of attention — at least 3 scenes between Old Bill and Isaiah and more dealing with the fallout from them, plus numerous smaller instances of Octavia’s pearl-clutching — is paid to it in Lair of Dreams, where it does not meaningfully affect the main plot. Pushing some of that material to the next book, where Bray could have included just one of the Isaiah/Old Bill interactions (because one was harrowing enough, and sufficient to establish Old Bill’s motivations and Isaiah’s danger) would have made Lair of Dreams much more focused.
My ratings seem harsh, even to me, because these are creative, well-written, and thoroughly researched books that tell essentially good stories. But they’re almost too ambitious and try to do too much, and as a result the engagement factor, where I felt fully immersed in the mystery, was inconsistent. I’m not really sure if I want to continue with the series, and that is a problem. The audiobooks were both around 19 hours long, which is just A LOT when your core plotline is a mystery. Too many distractions and red herrings and the mind starts to wander. Or at least mine does.