Thursday, September 17, 2015

Battle of the 2012 Books, Bracket Eight, First Semifinal :: The Diviners by Libba Bray vs. Osama by Lavie Tidhar

Our first semifinal match in Bracket Eight of the Battle of the 2012 Books features The Diviners by Libba Bray going against Osama by Lavie Tidhar. The winner, the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 100 pages, will advance to the championship round.

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 made it to the semifinals by soundly defeating Sharkways by A. J. Kirby in the first round, and by overcoming Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye in the second round.

In the opening 50 pages of The Diviners, teenaged flapper Evie O'Neill arrived in 1920s New York, determined to make a splash. Evie is rather self-absorbed, but that's partly to mask her pain over her brother's death in the Great War. In the next 50 pages, Evie starts blending into the Manhattan social scene. She also accompanies her uncle, who is summoned to a murder scene as an expert in the occult. Using her strange ability to pick up thoughts from physical objects, Evie sees the victim's brutal murder and learns that an evil presence is loose in New York. Based on cryptic intelligence from her uncle, we suspect Evie will be one of the "Diviners" who will have to battle this presence. Another is Harlem numbers-runner Memphis Campbell, who had healing powers as a child, but abandoned them after they failed him when he needed them most.

Osama: Solaris, October 2012 (published in UK by PS Publishing in 2011), 302 pages, cover art by Pedro Marques. Lavie Tidhar is an Israeli writer now living in London. Osama won the 2012 World Fantasy Award. Osama made it to the semifinals by overpowering The Steam Mole by Dave Freer in the first round, and by defeating Beyond Here Lies Nothing by Gary McMahon in the second round.

Osama takes place in an alternate universe where Islamic terrorism occurs only in the pages of a series of pulp novels called Osama bin Laden: Vigilante. In the opening 50 pages a mysterious woman tasked our hero, a private eye named Joe, with finding the author of the Osama books. In the next 50-page section, Joe explores Paris and tracks down the books' publisher, despite warnings from some American thugs who do not want him to continue with his assignment. While in Paris, he meets another strange woman, who ends up vanishing from his arms, the most obvious of several signs that the reality of Joe's universe is rather tenuous.

The Battle: Judging the Battle of the Books gets difficult once we're to the semifinals, because the books that get this far are usually really good. Both The Diviners and Osama are well-written and mostly successful at everything the authors are trying to do.

Through the first hundred pages of The Diviners, the main protagonist Evie is engaging even though flawed. The narrative is funny when Libba Bray wants it to be, and genuinely chilling even to an adult reader when things get ominous. Bray effectively conveys the mood of the roaring 20s, with a narrative voice that nicely suits the period, for example in this scene where Evie's friend Mabel introduces her to a pair of elderly sisters residing in her building:
The Misses Proctor wore their long gray hair curled like turn-of-the-century schoolgirls. The effect was odd and disconcerting, like porcelain dolls who had aged and wrinkled.

"Welcome to the Bennington. It's a grand old place. . . . Sometimes you might hear odd sounds in the night. But you mustn't be frightened. The city has its ghosts, you see."

"All the best places do," Evie said with mock-seriousness.

Mabel choked on her Coca-Cola, but Miss Lillian did not take note. "In the seventeen hundreds, this patch of land was home to those suffering from the fever. Those poor, tragic souls moaning in their tents, jaundiced and bleeding, their vomitus the color of black night!"

Evie pushed her sandwich away. "How hideously fascinating. I was just saying to Mabel—Miss Rose—that we don't talk enough about black vomit." Under the table, Mabel's foot threatened to push Evie's through the floor.
That is a smart-alecky young heroine that I can get behind!

In Osama, Lavie Tidhar goes for a darker, more contemplative mood, but builds it just as successfully. His lush descriptions of a slightly altered Paris work very well. I love the contrast between Joe's noirish storyline and the excerpts from the Osama bin Laden: Vigilante books, which Joe and the other characters describe as pulp novels, but actually are narrated in a matter-of-fact style and are pulpish only in the sense that things often blow up.

Tidhar does a wonderful job of suggesting through subtle cues that the reality of Joe's universe is fragile. For example, when a bartender says of the odd woman Joe keeps encountering, "She's not all there," we're pretty sure he doesn't just mean she's crazy. Later, when Joe catches up to her again, she says she doesn't know where the fat man who publishes the Osama novels lives:
"Would you tell me if you knew?"

The girl shook her head again. When she looked at him, he felt trapped: he could not move away. The large brown eyes examined him, stripping him down without emotion, looking inside, a doctor checking for tell-tale signs of a terminal disease. "No," she said. "Why should I? He never did us any harm. And he cares, Joe. He cares. Life isn't a pulp novel, Joe, and death isn't either." And she got up and threw her head back and downed the drink, the last drink, and put down the glass on the counter and walked away, and he watched her, and it was another ritual established, another pattern followed, agreed upon, comforting. They both needed comfort, not of sex or even drink but of a reason, any reason, and in the absence of that there were only empty rituals. And the door closed behind her and the couples danced, seeking warmth in each other's bodies, and the slow recorded jazz played on, and the smoke from Joe's cigarette formed Lazarus castles in the air, gray and insubstantial, and he thought, I never told her my name.
Judge for yourself, but so far the enigmatic style of Osama is working beautifully for me.

So how to choose a winner after 100 pages, when both books are well written and entertaining? I want to give you some insightful literary analysis as to why one book is better, but I can't. All I can say is, if I were to declare Osama the winner, I would stop reading The Diviners. But if I were to name The Diviners the winner, I would continue reading Osama; I would not be able to put it down now if I tried. Which is what the Battle of the Books is all about.

THE WINNER: Osama by Lavie Tidhar

Osama advances to the championship round to face either Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines or A Pretty Mouth by Molly Tanzer.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

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