For her eighth novel, American author Sara Gran has chosen to self-publish under her own imprint, Dreamland Books. It’s a brave move for an established author, but the quality of her writing coupled with her experience in book retail gives her a great chance of success. Success that will be assured if every novel published by Dreamland is of the quality of The Book of the Most Precious Substance.
I had never read Gran before, but I was certainly aware of her. The Claire Dewitt series is considered to include some of the best detective novels of the last decade and her 2003 horror novel Come Closer is still widely discussed and was reprinted last year. Her books have a reputation for playing with reader’s expectations and refusing to be confined by genre boundaries, a little like Elizabeth Hand. The Book of the Most Precious Substance continues that trend by merging supernatural horror with mystery and adding in some erotic thriller.
The Book of The Most Precious Substance resembles Elizabeth Hand’s The Book of Lamps and Banners in that it is actually about a rare book of unimaginable power and value. In the case of The Book of the Most Precious Substance, only three copies are thought to exist, and it is rumoured that the book will grant any wish to someone who completes its five steps of sex magic.
The request to find a copy for a private individual comes at just the right time for rare book dealer Lily Albrecht. Once a successful novelist, her writing career was put aside after her husband, Abe, developed a rare neurological condition in his 30s, which gradually stripped away his personality and cognitive faculties. Lily’s life is restricted to a regular grind of attending book fairs to acquire and sell rare books to pay for his around-the-clock care and she has neither the money nor the time to enjoy life for herself.
After the accidental death of the go-between in the proposed transaction, Lily enlists Lucas Markson, another figure in the rare book world, to help her track down a copy of the book and to identify the mystery customer so that they can sell the book on for a profit. As Lily and Lucas learn more about the book, their reason for finding it gradually changes. They still want the money from a sale, but they also begin exploring the sex magic steps together, unwittingly placing themselves in peril. The price of forbidden knowledge is always higher than people are prepared to pay.
Gran takes her antiquarians on a tour of the United States, and even to Paris, as they follow leads on the maddeningly elusive book, encountering on the way a host of sinister people interested in acquiring or selling on the book including a power-crazed admiral, a tech billionaire, members of a sex commune and a dominatrix. As they move through the five steps, the tension rises as the last step involves murder.
The Book of the Most Precious substance is a very enjoyable read. Gran is very confident writing horror, is clearly familiar with the trope of the forbidden book, and has no difficulty provoking a sense of dread. There are a couple of nice twists towards the end to keep us guessing, but what I most enjoyed was Lily’s journey. We feel the absence of joy, excitement and sex in her life as a result of Abe’s illness, and her delight as she gradually finds these things again with Lucas.
If I have a complaint it would be a small one about the plotting. Although the sex scenes are very different and memorable, the device of Lily and Lucas moving through each step of sex magic by meeting another potential vendor becomes a little repetitive and predictable.
However, the novelist herself is anything but predictable. Sara Gran’s novels defy easy categorisation, so perhaps it’s just best to say The Book of The Most Precious Substance is simply very good.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars