the book of the most precious substance by sara gran

I have to say, I hovered over the Goodreads star rating on this, and I’m still torn between giving it three stars (okay if you like this sort of thing) and four stars (quite good). The problem? I am always squeamish and this book in particular (and its various substances) was always going to give me the icks or the squicks. I had been forewarned: so why read it in the first place?

Well, apart from the icky stuff, it’s a fairly straightforward adventure in bookselling (and buying), which is not a bad world to lose yourself in. It’s not exactly “cozy crime” (which is having a bit of a moment) but it is an interesting world of book fairs and first editions. I’m reminded that one of my favourite John Le Carré’s is The Russia House, which starts in such a world. So it’s a kind of fantasy-mystery-adventure story, which on the surface is quite appealing. It’s a decent story and it rocks along, and at least one podcaster I respect recommended it, so.

On the other hand, the particular book being pursued here is a sex magic book, and that’s where it gets icky. I believe I had a character in my novel The Wake Knot respond to the thought of sex magick (with a k) with a simple, ew. But I went in knowing this, and the truth is that those scenes that are likely to prompt squeamishness are few and far between. There is quite a bit of sex in here, but it isn’t sexy, I don’t think. In fact, I don’t think sex in novels is ever sexy.

But ignoring all that stuff there are some structural problems. There is a lot of travelling around, and bumping up against different characters in pursuit of the book. Well, this means it tends towards the Menippean satire, as our protagonist-narrator encounters these characters and their philosophies. But (unlike in a thriller/mystery) there is no doubling back, in the sense that we get what we need (or learn what we need) and then move onto the next. There’s no going back to someone and saying, you lied!

Which is a problem because (slight spoiler ahead) there’s a revelation towards the end that one of these characters murdered somebody. But I completely blanked on the name of the victim, not remembering who they were in the story until a couple of pages later. And then I was like, oh. Well, that should have had more impact, but it didn’t, because I’d completely forgotten about them. Because this is a novel about the pursuit of a book rather than the solving of a murder mystery, it’s hard to care. But at the end, I think you’re supposed to care?

Here’s the set up: one-time novelist Lily Albrecht has been forced to abandon her promising literary career and sell books for a living in order to care for her husband, who has some form of early onset dementia and is completely locked in, requiring round-the-clock care. She’s involved somewhat reluctantly in the world of rare and collectible books. I actually would have liked a bit more of this scene, as I quite like it. But the ruthless plot moves us on. Through another bookseller she learns of a collector who is after an exceedingly rare book of magic(k-k-k), and gets involved because the money at stake will help her in her dire financial situation. But then the other bookseller is killed and Lily finds herself front and centre in an international pursuit of power and sex. The first job is to find out just who it was wanted to buy the book.

Well, you may have spotted in that brief summary that the other bookseller was killed (in a mugging). And yes, I did completely forget about that by the time I reached the end. So a little frown creased my brow and it took me a couple of pages to remember that particular precipitating incident.

So: three stars, or four? I think, in the end, that it was readable without being particularly gripping. There was a fair amount of squick, so I think perhaps three stars. Which, again, means: if you think you might enjoy this, you probably will.

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