The Diviners, Book 1

Book review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
The Diviners, Book 1 Book Poster Image
Swell start to a spooky but fabulous Prohibition-set series.

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Kids say

age 13+
Based on 3 reviews

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

Educational Value

Reading this book is like taking an undergraduate course called the History of New York: The Roaring Twenties. It's chock full of thoroughly researched historical references, about everything from popular culture (Tin Pan Alley, Ziegfeld Follies, jazz clubs, dance marathons) to religion and secret organizations (Masons and the Pillar of Fire church, Judaism) to politics (one character's parents are socialists) and literature (characters read Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Friedrich Nietzsche). The slang, the clothes, the description of New York City neighborhoods -- it's all in there, and any curious teen reader will want to learn more about the world Bray so vividly describes.

Positive Messages

Almost like a superhero story, the crew of diviners in The Diviners all struggle to come to terms with their powers, their destiny, their ability to make a difference. Self-identity is a major theme of the book, as is finding your tribe of people, or at the very least the one person who will understand you and care for you unconditionally. There's also a wonderful message about the joys of living in the big city. Even though there are horrors, too, the good outnumbers the evil.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The teenagers in the book are all fabulously flawed and realistic seeming and show that adolescence can be hard but also thrilling no matter what the decade. With such detailed characterizations, the various voices represent different kinds of personalities. Evie is a risk-taking attention hog who realizes there's more to life than having fun; Sam is bold and brash and hides his vulnerability; Jericho is strong and silent; Memphis has the soul of a troubled poet, as does Theta; Mabel desperately wants to be loved for who she is not who she looks like.


The serial killer in this book, like the serial killer from the movie Seven, is motivated by sacred texts but is even creepier, because there's a supernatural, occult element to all of the killings. The murders are described, and although they typically fade to black, the bodies are discovered and then described. And the serial killer doesn't discriminate when it comes to his methods: the victims range in age, background, and ethnicity and have parts of their body removed for ritualistic reasons. Those passages are gory, surprisingly detailed (the girl who empties her bladder or the boy who imagines what his friends will say when he's missing, etc.) and sometimes downright terrifying.


Some kisses, references to virginity or lack thereof (without every using the word), and going too far, feeling stirrings, and strong feelings of attraction. There's also a gay character who's said to sometimes bring guys home. There's love at first sight and also more than one possible love triangle that's established. Couples in clubs kiss and dance.


Because it's a period novel, there's not as much cursing as in contemporary teen books. There's the occasional "ass" and "bitch," as well as some more creative insults and historically appropriate references to "Negroes," "coloreds," and various immigrant groups.


Not many products mentioned (Coca-Cola, some car brands), but tons of pop-culture references -- to things popular nearly 100 years ago!

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

The Diviners is set during Prohibition, so naturally speakeasies and drinking (gin, champagne, cocktails) is all the rage for sophisticated New York teens. Evie drinks "giggle water" whenever she can, and she (and her friends) get drunk on a few occasions. Mabel gets drunk, throws up, and vows not to drink again. Smoking was in vogue at the time, so many of the characters smoke cigarettes. The serial killer often drugs his victims to incapacitate them before he finishes them off.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Diviners is the first in a series by award-winning author Libba Bray, who has set her dark and pulse-quickening novel in Prohibition-era New York City. There's an occultish serial killer at work, and only those touched with supernatural gifts can rally together to try to find him. His killings are deeply disturbing, gory, and ritualistic. There's occasional strong language ("ass," "bitch"), as well as some more creative insults and historically accurate references to "Negroes," "coloreds," and various immigrant groups. This is the 1920s, so there's a lot of sneaking around to speakeasies and jazz clubs to drink and dance into the night, as well as kiss if the mood strikes. Racism and anti-immigrant fervor is explained, and there's a good deal of discussion about the occult, witchcraft, voodoo, and other dark beliefs. But best of all, the book is packed with historical references to the literature, entertainment, politics, and style of the Roaring Twenties.

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Teen, 15 years old Written bykatey kat December 22, 2019

Soooooo Good

This is probably my favourite YA series. I could go on and on about how great it is, but in terms of content, the most mature aspect is the violence (the romanc... Continue reading
Teen, 15 years old Written byJoshCW June 30, 2017

Good book but some things to look out for

There is some references to alcohol in this book. But over all, very entertaining and I think it's a great read for free time. Has a very slow start but so... Continue reading

What's the story?

It's 1926 and clever 17-year-old Midwesterner Evie O'Neill has been "punished" for her troublemaking antics by being sent to live with her eccentric bachelor Uncle Will in Manhattan. Will runs the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult along with his handsome but quiet assistant Jericho. Although Evie would "abso-tute-ly" prefer living it up at "swell" speakeasies and movie palaces with her intelligent but plain best friend Mabel, a series of occult-related murders lead her to reveal a secret supernatural gift of hers to help the investigation. But Evie is far from the only young "diviner" in the City. Can THE DIVINERS come together to combat the forces of evil before it's too late?

Is it any good?

Libba Bray is one of the most refreshingly unpredictable novelists writing for young adults. She can tackle anything that strikes her fancy, from a send-up of Don Quixote (Going Bovine) to a girl-centered twist on Lord of the Flies (Beauty Queens). Her books, while completely different from one another, each feature her gift for details that are obviously the result of painstaking research. She also has a penchant for creating protagonists, in this case Evie, who are far from the cookie-cutter stereotype of teen girls looking for love or a misfit wallflower with no voice. Evie is loud and chatty, and what she wants, far more than romance (which she's not even bothered with), is adventure, glamour, and kinship.

This is not a book for the faint of heart or for those seeking the easy girl-meets-boy romance. Bray is a sophisticated writer, and her writing demands the reader to pay attention and sometimes cower in fear along with her characters (the multiple points of view include those of the serial killer's victims). There's a ton of slang ("swell" and "say" and "pal-ski," to name just a few) and decade-specific references that may go over many teens' heads, but that's part of the joy of the story. It dares teens to find out if there was such a thing as the Pillar of Fire church commune, the Cotton Club, and Ziegfeld girls (yes, yes, and yes). With a varied and well-drawn cast of characters that range from a Pennsylvania Dutch intellectual to a rakish Russian pickpocket to a handsome Harlem healer, this is a book that requires time to finish (it's more than 600 pages), but it's such a satisfying stand-alone read.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about why Prohibition is such a popular period to capture in books, TV, and films. How does The Diviners incorporate iconic cultural elements of that era, like speakeasies and jazz, with lesser-known historical tidbits? 

  • Does the book make you want to learn more about New York City life in the 1920s?

  • Do you find the violence upsetting or necessary to further the plot? How is it different from violence in other teen books? 

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love history

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