Ephemeral, Eternal, Bountiful: Libba Bray’s The King of Crows

“Did you think the King of Crows would not come to collect on a bargain?”

Libba Bray’s series The Diviners is one that has stuck with me for a long time. I remember each time I encountered the first three novels: In 2014, I was drawn to the original hardcover gazing at me from a clearance shelf, fascinated by the intricate design—purples, golds, a mysterious eye staring out into the world. It brought me out of a reading slump, and I began to read again.

I remember having my first bookselling job when Lair of Dreams released, and I devoured that book on the metro ride to and from my props design gigs in D.C. My first year of teaching, Before the Devil Breaks You came out, and I curled up with Evie, Sam, Theta, Jericho, and the entire Diviners crew in my new apartment I’d been relocated to after Hurricane Harvey.

I was devastated by the end of Before the Devil Breaks You, but it also left me thrilled. This series I thought was over turned out not to be a trilogy but a quartet. And now, in 2020, I’ve gotten to discover the ending for these characters I have loved for six years. For some, the wait has been longer, since The Diviners came out in 2012. And, oh boy, is it a ride.

There’s something in the towns.

If you’re reading this review, I can only assume you’ve read the other three books, but just in case, here is a very brief, not at all in depth, quick gist of the universe: It’s the roaring twenties, and Evie O’Neill has moved to New York City after a debacle in her hometown caused her parents to send her to live with her Uncle Will. He owns the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult, but it’s more often known by the people in town as the Museum of Creepy Crawlies. There, she meets Jericho—his assistant—and helps them investigate an odd murder in town, eventually using Evie’s special ability to read any object she touches to search for clues. Through a series of events that introduce us to Theta, Mabel, Sam, Henry, Isaiah, Memphis, Ling, and others, we learn that these kids with special powers are called Diviners, and they were created through Project Buffalo. There’s a man in a stovepipe hat named The King of Crows, and he’s the Big Bad of this universe. By the time we’re reintroduced to our characters in The King of Crows, they’ve been through fight, flight, and death, and they’re drowning in grief. Here’s where our final story begins.

That was the trouble with wanting somebody else to take on making decisions—sometimes they did, and you ended up going to Nebraska.

The first thing that sets apart The King of Crows from the rest of the series is, well, its setting. Libba Bray chooses to expand the world by having her characters leave New York City. We’ve always had glimpses into different areas of the country in the other three books, but our characters have never physically left the Big Apple until now. Isaiah receives a vision from a young girl named Sarah Beth who insists that the only way to stop the King of Crows is for all of the Diviners to meet her on her family farm in Bountiful, Nebraska. A series of events at Sarah Snow’s funeral lead the crew to move towards that destination, but only after they’ve been separated.

If you’re a sucker for seeing characters you know and love interacting with other characters they haven’t spent much time with on the page, you’ll absolutely enjoy the three different groups Bray puts together as they travel to Bountiful. I personally enjoyed seeing Ling and Jericho get more time to interact. The settings are also phenomenal—there’s a traveling circus, which I am also a prime target for. Our characters benefit from leaving New York City, some even revisiting places from their pasts they never wanted to see again.

Memphis was struck anew by the power of stories.

When Bray started writing this series before it was released in 2012, she had no way of knowing what a tumultuous time in history we were about to face. She had no way to know that her American ghost story would run parallel to our haunted reality—one where men with roaming hands get elected into office and ghosts with white hoods feel free to crawl out of the shadows and march down the streets in Charlottesville, Virginia. How could she?

What I respect most about Bray as a writer is that instead of letting this inhibit her writing, she used it to strengthen her resolve, her storytelling, her purpose. Bray’s writing about 1920’s America continues to inform our present: how we’ve progressed, how we’ve stalled, and how we’ve allowed our own rising dead out of the ground and into our homes. Memphis’ pleas as the Voice of Tomorrow especially inform this change in her writing from The Diviners to The King of Crows, and it is haunting, yet hopeful.

It’s genuinely hard to talk about The King of Crows without giving away any of the twists and turns for you, dear reader, but I can say this: This book is so good that you will need to get up and walk away from it. You will need to set it down, pace the floor, and take a breath before diving back in. This quartet is a triumph, and The King of Crows may be Bray’s best work. I can only wrap up my complicated, invested emotions with a short passage from the book (but I promise, there are no spoilers involved):

The dead come to us however they can.
They are here with us. Always.
Hear what they have to say:
You are the stories.

Make a better history.

The King of Crows is available from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Cassie Schulz is the Events Assistant for Brazos Bookstore. You can find her on Twitter @kerfufflepuff where she tweets about books, musicals, and cats. You can also find her on Instagram, co-managing the page @tag.ur.lit with a fellow queer disaster who loves YA Lit as much as she does.

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