The Diviners by Libba Bray
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I vacillated between 4 and 5, because this really is a 4.5. Obviously I decided to "round up"!
The Diviners is set in 1920s/flapper era New York, with an occult twist. Evie, a teen from Ohio who has fully embraced the flapper mindset and vocab, has a hidden gift: if she touches something belonging to someone, she gets a vision of that person's past and secrets. This party trick goes awry and she's exiled to New York City and the care of her uncle. This uncle runs the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult (aka "The Museum of the Creepy Crawlies"), which is about to lose its space thanks to lack of payment of bills (including taxes). He's also helping the police with a very bizarre murder that has occult overtones - there's a pentagram, strange sigils and a scrap of paper that sounds vaguely like the Book of Revelations but with a twist.
Evie and her friend Mable (the daughter of socialist agitators) become friends with Theta, a Ziegfield girl, and Henry, Theta's "brother by a different mother". Together they go to parties and a speakeasy in Harlem, getting into trouble when there's a raid. As penance, Evie tries her best to help solve the series of increasingly weird murders that are clearly leading up to something... Armageddon? the rise of the Beast?
There's also Memphis, a black poet/numbers runner, taking care of his younger brother Isaiah, who has some ability to see images and the future (Memphis used to be a healer, until he failed to heal his mother); Sam, a pickpocket with the ability to not be seen when he chooses to be 'invisible'; Jericho, an polio survivor and Uncle Will's ward/assistant; and Margaret Walker, who tutors Isaiah in 'rithmatic and card reading, who has some tie to Uncle Will. All of these lives intersect during the solving of the murders, and it's clear that they'll continue to do so in the next two books.
And so we come to the "why not a solid 5" question. It's a trilogy. Now, to the author's credit, the ending here is a teaser, not a cliffhanger, but still - a trilogy. Sigh. And this was nearly 600 pages! In part I suspect that's due to the incredible, overwhelming amount of research that Libba Bray did and the details of the world she's recreating. (At a time when we have a Mormon running for President, it's interesting that she puts the founding of the religion squarely in the context of the Second Great Awakening in the "burned-over district".) I am a little concerned that she's named one of those religions Brethren: with the exception of one group in the 1970s, the Brethren groups are Anabaptists and not at all as described here. Now, this is a work of fiction, so she's allowed to take liberties but - and this is important - will readers who don't know anything about the "real" Brethren confuse the two? I read an ARC, so perhaps this will be changed by publication time but I doubt it. Finally, there's a cat who comes to harm. Sniff. Don't do that to me.
ARC provided by publisher.