Rare book dealer and lapsed novelist Lily Albrecht is minding her own business at a rare book sale in Manhattan when she’s approached out of the blue by an oddball colleague with a too-good-to-be-true offer: find a copy of an obscure 17th-century book of sex magic, The Book of the Most Precious Substance, and he’ll come through with a client willing to pay a million dollars. Having never read a Sara Gran novel, Lily says sure. Within hours, the other dealer is dead under mysterious circumstances.
Not to be deterred, ever-pragmatic—and broke—Lily decides to track down the book and the client on her own, with the help of Lucas, a charismatic fellow dealer who may or may not be on her side. Lily soon finds out that the Book is more than just a priceless curio; its promise of earth-shattering sex and limitless power for aspirants who complete each of its five rituals is real, and there’s more than one obscenely wealthy and correspondingly ruthless person who’s after it.
“I never worked with other dealers. I never went chasing after ridiculous books. I never counted money before it was in hand. My life was practical and narrow and tightly confined,” Lily tells us, but her search for the Book changes everything. The Book pulls Lily out of her reclusive upstate New York life and into a maelstrom of misadventure. Her search takes her through a wild rampage of glorious setpieces, ranging from a tech billionaire’s soullessly tacky Bel Air mansion to a reclusive French noblewoman’s chateau BDSM commune.
And then there’s the fact that the Book’s magic actually works. Once in possession of the Book, aspiring magicians must complete five increasingly elaborate and extremely racy rituals in order to achieve supernatural powers–but the final ritual is monstrous enough to stop all but the most intent devotees of magic. At first, Lily is skeptical, but she quickly comes to believe that the Book is reaching out for her even as she’s looking for it, and that its influence has the power to alter the course of her life. If she does manage to get her hands on a copy, do she and Lucas really have the will–or the inhumanity–to take the final step?
One by one, the other people in pursuit of the Book start turning up dead, and Lily herself is sucked into its witchy grip with irrevocable results. Maybe, she realizes, ascetic retreat to a private library isn’t all it’s cracked up to be; her re-entry into the real and living world, and its concomitant dangers—heartbreak, risk, murder—is too thrilling to abandon, even as she comes to understand the Book has a mind and a mission of its own, and one that may mean peril for Lily and all that she holds dear. “I knew it wasn’t true, but it felt like I would keep doing this for the rest of my life,” Lily says at the commencement of her adventure, “follow the book around the world with Lucas, with more sex and more money and more adventure at every step. I’d never return to that house upstate, which I now saw I hated.”
Fans of Gran’s previous novels—of which I am unabashedly one—will recognize Lily as a Sara Gran heroine through and through: haunted and lonely, too smart for her own good, and with a reckless affinity for wrecking-ball-degree bad decisions. At the novel’s outset, she’s a wisecracking recluse, dropping acerbic observations about the sequestered, dusty world of books and the people who lose themselves among them. As Lily wryly notes, there are people, and then there are book people. “Like most book people,” Lily observes of another dealer in the novel’s opening pages, “there was… a hollow echo in his laugh that let you know he’d rather be around books than people. Who could blame him? It was why so many of us were in this business. People had let us down. People had broken our hearts. We liked books and animals and messy rooms full of things that weren’t people.”
But soon enough, the reader learns Lily’s self-imposed mess-free exile, and the long-ago implosion of her once-spectacular literary career, is a result not of corrosive misanthropy but a slow-moving tragedy that has devastated her entire life and demolished the bright and promising world she once inhabited. And her whirlwind world tour in pursuit of the Book—and the pleasure and power it promises—takes on a haunting resonance once the reasons for her long season of isolation are revealed.
Though The Book of the Most Precious Substance is good, cheeky fun, a (very explicitly) sexy nod to mysterious-old-book-prompts-a-quest gothic swashbucklers like The Historian and A Discovery of Witches, as the novel progresses it unfolds into something more thoughtful and more poignant.
The Book of the Most Precious Substance is not in any way a pandemic novel; that far more dolorous opponent appears nowhere in its pages. (The real world makes few appearances in the novel at all; the characters barely even look at their phones, which is, frankly, a relief.) But it’s not difficult to map the story of a lonely and deeply isolated person consciously making objectively terrible decisions just to feel something onto the peculiar misery of the plague years.
Lily’s methodical annihilation of all that is joyful in her life is a response to an unbearable personal tragedy, not a worldwide apocalypse, but her reckless pursuit of the good life after a long period of exile is even more sympathetic than it might’ve been two years ago. “I was wordlessly aware that I had been thinking twenty-four hours a day for what felt like years. Thinking, scheming, plotting, planning, dealing and trying. Always trying. My throat felt tight just imagining it all. There was enormous relief in letting it all go,” Lily says. Indeed. The Book’s final, savage twist is a stark reminder that sometimes what we’ve lost is better lost to us forever, no matter how much we might will it otherwise—a lesson that lands a little different in these long, stripped-down days.
Gran is a master of upending genre fiction and using it to ask big questions, while keeping all of the fun, mayhem, and snappy pacing that gives genre its appeal in the first place. How much would you sacrifice for someone you love? What would you trade for joy? How far would you go to feel really, truly alive? Maybe too far, is Lily’s answer, but readers will not regret tagging along for the ride.
The Book of the Most Precious Substance is available from Dreamland Books.
Sarah McCarry is the author of the novels All Our Pretty Songs, Dirty Wings, and About A Girl, the editor and publisher of the chapbook series Guillotine, and the Executive Director of the Eve Kososfky Sedgwick Foundation. Her work has been shortlisted for the Lambda Award, the Norton Award, and the Tiptree Award, and she has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Joint Quantum Institute, the Launchpad Writers’ Workshop, and The Arctic Circle.