Before the Devil Breaks You: The Diviners, Book 3

Book review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
Before the Devil Breaks You: The Diviners, Book 3 Book Poster Image
Intense supernatural installment sets up an epic finale.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Like previous books in series, Before the Devil Breaks You is a thorough exploration of New York in the 1920s. Well researched, full of historical references: popular culture (jazz clubs like the Cotton Club, the Harlem Renaissance, radio shows, Ziegfeld Follies, the World's Fair), cultural and immigration issues (one character is half-Chinese, half-Irish and lives in Chinatown), polio epidemic, pervasive racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism. The slang ("horsefeathers," "bees knees," "applesauce"), the clothes, the description of New York City neighborhoods is based on historical fact, so except for the supernatural elements, this is very much a historically accurate, educational novel.

Positive Messages

Series continues to focus on positive messages about identity, friendship, tolerance, and teamwork. These Diviners from different backgrounds all come together with different strengths and weaknesses, and despite their varied cultures, religions, and social statuses, they bond over defeating a common enemy that threatens the entire city -- and the world as they know it.

Positive Role Models & Representations

As always, the young protagonists are all realistic-seeming and show that adolescence can be hard but also thrilling, no matter the decade. The Diviners are flawed but courageous, caring, and clever. Henry learns that moving forward doesn't mean forgetting someone you loved and lost; Ling realizes being part of a group of friends is empowering. Evie can be self-absorbed (and she self-medicates), but she finally decides what she wants in a relationship and how she can help people; Sam is bold and brash but with a secret vulnerability; Jericho is strong and silent; Memphis has the soul of a troubled poet, as does Theta, who's an abuse survivor; Mabel discovers how true love differs from a one-sided crush.

Violence

People at an asylum (including doctors, orderlies, and nurses) mysteriously feel compelled to commit bloody, heinous acts, including torture and murder. A supernatural force possesses people, and covert government agents assassinate a host of people they consider subversive. Two radicals commit acts of domestic terrorism for their cause, but in one case are blamed for a bombing they had wanted to prevent. Individuals are kidnapped and taken hostage. Main characters survive life-or-death situations. A perpetrator of domestic violence hurts and threatens his estranged wife. A man undergoing hormone therapy (think Captain America) becomes hyper-aggressive and sexual, and ends up nearly raping a woman who cared about him. Flashbacks to trench warfare in WWI.

Sex

A few different couples have sex (in two cases, involving the loss of virginity), but none of the descriptions are explicit or gratuitous. One character almost makes love to one suitor and later chooses another suitor, with whom she has sex. Another character who thought she was asexual begins to feel desire for someone.

Language

Infrequent use of "s--t," "damn," "goddamn," "bitch," and "Jesus!" One use of "f---ing." African-Americans are called "Negroes," "coloreds," as was common in the '20s.

Consumerism

Coca-Cola, Pears soap.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Many of the characters smoke cigarettes (or in the case of one adult, pipes) and drink at speakeasy clubs and just for fun, even though it's during Prohibition. One character drinks a lot but tries to stop in order to better her supernatural abilities.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Before the Devil Breaks You is the third -- and most intense -- installment in Libba Bray's epic supernatural alternative-history series, The Diviners. Set in New York City during the Roaring Twenties, the book continues to explore the time period's unique blend of fascination with the occult, hope for tomorrow, appreciation for jazz and musical theater, and radical youth zeal contrasted with the Prohibition-era establishment's anti-immigrant, anti-socialist, anti-intellectual, and anti-drinking stances. The story continues to follow a diverse group of young characters (some in their late teens, others in their early 20s) with paranormal abilities ranging from clairvoyance, telepathy, and healing to lucid dreaming and fire manipulation. The violence here has more impact (and is bloodier) than in the previous books, with all sorts of deaths and acts of horror that could frighten or linger with more sensitive readers. There is also some drinking and and smoking, as well as romance that leads to a few love scenes and first times, but it's all handled in an age-appropriate way for older teen readers. An ideal pick for mature readers who love historical fiction, paranormal romance, and mysteries/adventures.

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What's the story?

BEFORE THE DEVIL BREAKS YOU is the third installment in Libba Bray's The Diviners series, and it's a whirlwind. It follows the same cast of characters -- Evie, who reads objects; Sam, who has powers of persuasion and invisibility; fire-starter showgirl Theta; poet and musician Memphis and his clairvoyant little brother Isaiah; lucid dreamers Henry and Ling; cyborg Jericho; and activist Mabel. Now the crew is battling not only a secret agency that's out to get them but also their most powerful supernatural villain yet, the Man in the Yellow Hat, who can command ghosts to force humans to do unspeakable things. The Diviners, who face a propaganda campaign to paint them as dangerous and un-American, must bond together to amplify one another's powers and defeat -- or at least defend themselves and the people they love against -- the powers of evil.

Is it any good?

Another riveting, page-turning entry in Libba Bray's fantastic Diviners series, this intense installment is not for the weak of heart. More horror, more romance, more deaths, oh my. Bray isn't quite as vicious an author as George R.R. Martin, but these characters suffer and bleed and hurt. This is the sort of book you'll need to clear the calendar to finish, because it's long, and you won't want to put it down -- except for when you're overcome with feelings. It's hard not to love each member of this ensemble, even when they make questionable decisions. Ultimately, they're all so vulnerable; they all just want to be loved. It's also amazing how seamlessly Bray works in the characters' diverse backgrounds and identities, whether it's a brief mention of Sam's bubbe's borscht, or Ling's complex relationship with her polio, or African-American Memphis and Isaiah's inability to enter certain places. Mabel's ties to the socialist/communist labor movement is also well explored -- especially how radical youth can feel frustrated with more patient -- but just as committed to the cause -- older generations.

Despite being quick reads for invested fans, these books aren't easy reads. This installment in particular requires a lot of attention; you can't skim it or you'll miss a lot. But, as always, Bray infuses humor, historical trivia, and a good bit of romance to keep the story from being bloody and bleak. As for the characters, we've met them all, but Mabel, who has suffered from sidekick-itis this entire series, finally gets bumped up from a supporting role to her own, separate subplot. The Jericho-Evie-Sam love triangle is finally resolved, but not before there are enough twists and turns to nearly break a shipper's heart. And even previously uninterested Ling realizes she is capable of falling for someone. Prepare to feel all the feels, as the kids say, because Bray puts readers through the wringer!

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how Before the Devil Breaks You blends fantasy with history. Does this book make you want to learn more about New York in the 1920s?

  • What do you think of multiple-point-of-view narratives? Why does the author focus on some characters more than others in certain installments in the series? Does the narration feel more evenly spread out in this book?

  • Before the Devil Breaks You, like the other books in the series, is incredibly diverse and features a variety of LGBTQ, disabled, religious, and racial/ethnic minorities in the ensemble of characters. What did you learn about the history of these groups from this story? How is it relevant to today and how we treat those who aren't like us?

  • Which of the relationships did you root for throughout the story? Do you enjoy love triangles and other complicated romances?

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