Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone: Penguin Books, September 2012, 198 pages, cover photo by Simen Johan. Stefan Kiesbye is a German author now living in New Mexico. Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone defeated The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker to advance to the second round.
In the first 50 pages of Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone, three different first-person narrators look back on tragic events from their childhood decades earlier, in the small German town of Hemmersmoor. In the opening 25 pages, Martin recalled how a new family to the village was killed after being accused (probably falsely) of cannibalism. Then Christian told us how at age seven he murdered his sister when a carnival worker instructed him to capture her soul in a glass vial. The next 25 pages consist of a long chapter narrated by Linde, daughter of the gardener for the town's wealthiest family. When that family took in a widow and her child, Linde's mother began harboring suspicions about her husband and the widow. The mother pulls strings for the widow to receive a pension that allows her to move out, with unintended consequences.
The Diviners: Little Brown, September 2012, 578 pages, jacket illustration by I Love Dust. The Diviners is a young adult fantasy set in the roaring 1920's. The Diviners soundly defeated Sharkways by A. J. Kirby to advance to the second round.
In the initial 25 pages of The Diviners, a malicious spirit was released into the world, and we were introduced to two young people with strange abilities, flapper Evie O'Neill from Ohio and Harlem numbers-runner Memphis Campbell. A single long chapter about Evie arriving in Manhattan comprises almost all of the next 25 pages. While in the big city, Evie will stay with her uncle, an expert on paranormal activities. She learns from him of a prophecy of a "coming storm," the only defense to which will be "diviners" who can foretell the future.
The Battle: This one surprised me. While I liked the first section of The Diviners, I came to this battle expecting Your House Is on Fire to advance, because it had such a creepy and memorably unusual opening. However, the Battle of the Books format demands that authors quickly build upon a strong opening. Reading through page 50, I find it's Libba Bray who has best met that challenge.
The second 25-page section of Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone is certainly not bad, but neither is it as tightly written or compelling as the opening section. Linde's first viewpoint chapter is perhaps too long, and it doesn't show the young Linde to have much personality (compared to the older Linde we've already seen piss on an old friend's grave). The chapter has a tragic ending, but it comes as the unintended consequence of a kind act, which doesn't match the punch of the previous chapters. Perhaps more importantly, Linde's chapter seems little connected to the prior chapters, giving the whole book an episodic feel through 50 pages.
Meanwhile, in the second 25-page section of The Diviners, Libba Bray hits all the right notes to build on a good opening. As with Your House Is on Fire, the chapter that makes up most of this section is longer than the previous chapters. But Bray effectively uses that space to let us better get to know her character Evie. Evie is a flawed young woman, much too concerned with what others think of her. But she is also fun-loving, despite her understandable insecurities, in a way that makes her easy to cheer for, for example in this scene when the first person she meets in Penn Station takes advantage of her friendliness:
Evie stood uncertainly for a few seconds. She stuck out her hand for a shake. With a smirk, Sam Lloyd drew her to him and kissed her hard on the mouth. She heard the shoe-shine men chuckling as she pulled away, red-faced and disoriented. Should she slap him? He deserved a slap. But was that what sophisticated Manhattan moderns did? Or did they shrug it off like an old joke they were too tired to laugh at?While this chapter focuses on development of Evie's character, Bray also manages to pepper in enough references to the larger conflict brewing around New York that the story still feels like it's moving ahead with a purpose.
"You can't blame a fella for kissing the prettiest girl in New York, can you, sister?" Sam's grin was anything but apologetic.
Evie brought up her knee quickly and decisively, and he dropped to the floor like a grain sack. "You can't blame a girl for her quick reflexes now, can you, pal?"
YA urban fantasy isn't necessarily my first choice in sub-genres, but so far The Diviners is too much fun to put down.
THE WINNER: The Diviners by Libba Bray
The Diviners advances to the semifinals to take on either Osama by Lavie Tidhar or Beyond Here Lies Nothing by Gary McMahon.
To see the whole bracket, click here.