Book Review: "Before The Devil Breaks You" by Libba Bray


"We are a country built on immigrants, dreams, daring, and opportunity.

We are a country built by the horrors of slavery and genocide, the injustice of racism and exclusion. These realities exist side by side. It is our past and our present. The future is unwritten.

This book is about ghosts.

For we live in a haunted house."

~Libba Bray

New York City.

1927.

Lights are bright.

Jazz is king.

Parties are wild.

And the dead are coming...

After battling a supernatural sleeping sickness that early claimed two of their own, the Diviners have had enough of lies. They're more determined than ever to uncover the mystery behind their extraordinary powers, even as they face off against an all-new terror. Out on Ward's Island, far from the city's bustle, sits a mental hospital haunted by the lost souls of people long forgotten--ghosts who have unusual and dangerous ties to the man in the stovepipe hat, also known as the King of Crows.

With terrible accounts of murder and possession flooding in from all over, and New York City on the verge of panic, the Diviners must band together and brave the sinister ghosts invading the asylum, a fight that will bring them fact-to-face with the King of Crows. But as the explosive secrets of the past come to light, loyalties and friendships will be tested, love will hang in the balance, and the Diviners will question all that they've ever known. All the while, malevolent forces gather from every corner in a battle for the very soul of a nation--a fight that could claim the Diviners themselves.

No, I don't normally start my book reviews this way. Yes, I'm starting this one this way because it's important. February is Black History Month and I couldn't have timed completing my reading of Libba Bray's latest novel any better. Bray's not-so-subtle use of the supernatural plaguing 1920's New York as a way to present the dangers of racism and exclusion during the era that echoes our own today is a triumph. The quote you read above was not a quote taken from the actual story itself, but were the final words Bray imparted in her author's note one page later.

But I'm getting ahead of myself, so let's take a step back and get to what I really want to address with this wonderful book. As ever, here is your spoiler warning for the rest of the book. I will have to bring up major spoilers here to discuss what I want to. You have been warned.

Bray has a wonderfully diverse cast of diviners in this series who come from all manner of minorities. This is no secret and something I've openly applauded in my previous reviews--like anyone should. Even with this latest installment, Memphis, Theta and Sam are still my personal favorites--I'd be lying though if I let this elude to my not loving each and every one of these characters.

I love the way they try. I love the way the try to do better for the world and be better for themselves. I love how readily our cast of nutty diviners try with their best intentions and are all heart. They're flawed, they're hopeful, they pay it forward--as we all want to every day.

This, particularly, is what I love about Bray's writing. It was what I loved to see in Gemma Doyle's journey through The Gemma Series. Real people living real struggles with the best of intentions, even though life probably won't deliver the results we hope for. Tragically, that's what we get here in Before The Devil Breaks You.

Gear up kids, here's a major spoiler. Mabel Rose. For those of you who've read this book: you better have shed as many tears as I did. Mabel's death was tragic, heart breaking and so very, very important. From the beginning, this character always embodied that good-natured person we all know who wants to strive to make the world a better place. The person who knows it takes work and patience and nurturing--even if that nurturing means making just one person believe that it's not too late to try again. To quote an incredible pair of lines from Mabel Rose's final chapter:


Arthur teared up. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. "It's not a good world, Mabel."

"Yes it is. It just needs a lot of help." Mabel was crying, too. "We can do that, you and me. I still have hope, Arthur. I can't give up on the world just yet."

These lines stuck with me as I read Bray's author's note, enough to get me to flip back to the very page and slip a sticky note in the margin. It stuck with me that I began this book back in January, but finished reading it in February, How significant is it nowadays for us to look back upon the 1920's and earlier, and later than that even and see how easily history is seemingly repeating itself nowadays.

This made me think of the frustrated faces I see on television of people discussing the ignorance and hatred people so easily are turning to nowadays. To how much easier it is to just decide one hates something rather than try to understand. Bray's lovely book made me realize...how easily people nowadays prefer to just give up and toss their hands in the air and say, "what can you expect?" It makes me wonder, when did it get so easy for all of us to just decide it's too hard to keep trying and just give up?

We're an age of people who have the seductive luxury of slamming the door to our homes and simply pretending we didn't hear or see anything. We're in the age of being able to simply decide we can exclude ourselves and decide the problem went away. The danger and reality of that, is downright heartbreaking.

Collective thought, progression and the common sense to do what is right is what brought us out of the era of ignorance and bigotry. Ironically, and it's no secret to anyone peeking through their shutters, we're undoing the hard work of our ancestors before us.

I'm so glad I finished this book in February. What an appropriate time. What an appropriate month to remember the past and the trail we've all left behind to get to where we are now. I know I'm not the only one who's posted the following invitation, but I won't be the last either:

This year, this February and onward, I invite us all to remember to appreciate what we have, where it's come from and most importantly, to think to the future. We've just begun 2018 and it's time to figure out how we can get it right. I invite each and every one of us to try to show the world a little more compassion and to remember not to give up, even when ignorance's ugly face rears it's head.

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