Lily Albrecht is trying to offload British paperbacks for twenty bucks at a sale in a community college gymnasium near Gramercy Park when an acquaintance tells her he has a buyer ready to spend high six figures for a rare book. She’s more than intrigued. That kind of sale has never come her way and could change everything for Lily. As a young, fêted novelist, she had an exciting life full of celebrity and wit and a brilliant husband she loved deeply. Lily lost everything she had and clung to her one resource that held her life together: books.
As an introduction to the world of antiquarian book sellers, she surmises, “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.” The book she’s searching for is “The Book of the Most Precious Substance,” a seventeenth-century manual related to the alchemical experiments of the Renaissance with a mysterious and dangerous history.
With only six possible copies, Lily and her new partner, Lucas, rush to find a copy to satisfy their generous buyer, but also find themselves under the sway of the promise of the book. Whoever is able to complete the four steps described in the book—a series of sex magic acts—is said to be given whatever they desire. Lily and Lucas discover that some of the world’s most powerful political and financial leaders use that old black magic to retain their power and influence. “Once they start making money, they become scared of losing it. Once they get power, they’re even more scared of losing that. So they turn to anything—witches, astrologers, good luck charms. But there’s also quite a few who were in the Dark Arts when they were first starting out. Credit all their success to Pan or Lucifer or guardian angels.”
Lily and Lucas travel from New York to California to Munich and Paris trying to learn more about the book, track down any possible owners, and try out some of the sex magic for themselves along the way. Each time they accomplish a step, they each feel a queasy tremor and see fleeting and increasingly alarming images that let them know it’s working. Each wealthy potential owner or buyer of the book is such a horror of a human being they can’t imagine bestowing the book’s potential on them.
Sara Gran, the author of this adventure, is a booklover’s writer who clearly revels in the book-within-a-book concept. She includes enough references to actual dark magic books and authors to accompany her fictionalized book to thrill her clever readers or send them happily off to their laptops for side explorations on everything from Aleister Crowley to—ahem—other sex-magic topics. Gran knows that book lovers love books about books, which is merely one of the reasons “The Book of the Most Precious Substance” works so well. Just as she did in her excellent Claire Dewitt detective series, Gran creates a book-within-a-book that we’d also like very much to read.
We bibliophiles know that books have the power to transform. They transport us. They change us. They surprise and delight us. Perhaps that’s why it’s easy for the reader to slip into the premise of the story. We already know that books are magic. Gran’s book feels like a much hipper (and sexier) version of “The Da Vinci Code.” While no one should pass on the opportunity to dunk on Dan Brown’s idiotic bestselling novel, even some eighteen years after publication, it’s worth remembering how that book captivated readers. Gran’s latest novel has the power to do just that.
“The Book of the Most Precious Substance”
By Sara Gran
Dreamland Books, 332 pages