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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Book of
the Most Precious Substance

Sara Gran

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To purchase The Book of the Most Precious Substance

Title: The Book of the Most Precious Substance
Author: Sara Gran
Genre: Novel
Written: 2022
Length: 319 pages
Availability: The Book of the Most Precious Substance - US
The Book of the Most Precious Substance - UK
The Book of the Most Precious Substance - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : brisk good fun

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. A 28/1/2022 Danielle Trussoni

  From the Reviews:
  • "Gran’s writing, like the grimoire, is palpably seductive. The search for pleasure and magic is an aphrodisiac, one that pulses on the page. Gran’s plotting is hairpin in its curvature, her descriptions of desire sexy and subtle. Like Lily Albrecht, readers have little choice but to follow the book to its sinister conclusion." - Danielle Trussoni, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Book of the Most Precious Substance is narrated by Lily Albrecht. She once wrote a bestselling novel and was on her way to becoming a successful author, but she hasn't written anything in years and now gets by as a bookseller; she's: "a rare generalist in a world of specialists -- indeed:

That was my outstanding quality as a bookseller. I was a dilettante.
       She specializes: "in books that interested me and were profitable", and she does fairly well with this approach. Still, she is struggling -- emotionally, too, because the love of her life, husband Abel, isn't the man he used to be, now an invalid requiring a fulltime caretaker. They get by, but it's a tough and fairly dreary situation Lily finds herself stuck in, living in the boondocks (well, upstate New York).
       An opportunity presents itself when a fellow bookdealer approaches her at a New York City book sale, asking if she's familiar with a book called The Precious Substance. The dealer, Shyman, has a client who is very interested in getting his hands on a copy -- willing to pay six figures, "and I strongly suspect he would go to seven if he had to". Shyman is willing to give Lily a decent cut of the proceeds if she can find a copy.
       It's not easy to find information about the book, but Lily soon learns the basics. Its actual title is The Book of the Most Precious Substance, dating to the early seventeenth century. There were only five copies -- all hand-written, rather than printed -- and there are apparently only three left. It's a book that, as Lily will learn: "doesn't seem to like being reproduced" -- efforts to photograph or scan the pages seem to always go wrong. It also seems to hold some special powers: "Things happen when you're around it".
       The book is apparently: "the most precise, and most effective, grimoire of sex magic ever written". It leads readers through five stages, an instruction manual of sorts of ever more elaborate sexual acts which also bring with them considerable rewards -- culminating in the highest, which includes a human sacrifice. And it is meant for readers, plural -- a couple, man and woman, who have to go through the paces together to unlock its powers.
       Shyman is soon out of the picture, and Lily hooks up with longtime client and acquaintance Lucas, head of the rare books department at a New York City university library. He has good contacts, and Lily is quite drawn to him, and they set out to learn more about the book, and then to try to get their hands on a copy. There are a variety of hurdles -- they have to learn the identity of Shyman's prospective buyer, and then find one of the few remaining copies of the book and persuade the owner to sell it -- but these seem manageable; they're certainly very gung-ho about it.
       Soon enough, they're traveling -- business or even first class most of the time, eyeing the big payout awaiting them -- and meeting with a variety of very well-to-do folk who are interested, one way or another, in the book (annoyingly mostly know by the semi-pseudonyms Shyman assigned them -- the Admiral, the Accountant, the Whore, etc.). Along the way, they get some insight into the text -- and get to put some of what they learn into practice, making also for some very good sex. Indeed, life gets a whole lot better for Lily while she's on the hunt -- and there's that pot at the end of the rainbow which promises she can have everything she wants, and that proves very, very tempting.
       Early on, someone already warns Lily and Lucas about the magic they are getting themselves involved in:
It works. But the tricky thing is, it never works exactly how you expect. People think they're smart enough to summon up some entity or make someone fall in love with them and have it all turn out for the best. But they aren't smart enough. Whatever it is that usually decides our fates -- Gods, luck, random chance -- is smarter than us. It's always smarter. Magic works, but it's an exercise in irony, sometimes a dangerous one.
       They meet quite a few very rich and powerful people along the way, several of whom aren't satisfied with their masters-of-the-universe wealth and powers and still want more. Lily would be satisfied with less -- financial security alone sounds good -- but the possibilities seem increasingly tempting .....
       Well down the path they've gone, Lily is reminded again:
It works. It's real. You can get what you want. Whatever you think will make you happy. But the problem seems to be that most people are wrong about what will make them happy.
       It's not all easy sailing as they travel around: menace seems to lurk around them, and there are some incidents that are dangerous and threatening. People even get killed along the way. But, as Lily explains to a detective who questions her about one of the murders:
There's probably a hundred books worth as much as this one, and when one is available for sale, it tends to generate drama.
       Gran neatly resolves this little drama, not least with how she concludes the relationship between Lily and partner Lucas -- with her one true love, lost Abel, long kept in the background as she jet-sets around, but never completely out of her thoughts. Along the way there's a balancing of costs and benefits -- Lily quite enjoying the good life (and fancy-hotel minibars) along the way -- but of course it's the final reckoning that matters -- and here the costs of getting what you want prove considerably higher -- but also, maybe, just ... worth it all, including/despite magic's ironies ?
       Gran is good with books and the book-obsessed, and there are some neat library-descriptions along the way, making The Book of the Most Precious Substance good fun for bibliophiles. Lily is also a sympathetic narrator, not wallowing too deeply in her difficult personal situation (helped also by the fact that it is then mostly kept off-scene, and that she finds considerable personal satisfactions in and with Lucas). She clearly does enjoy the better life, however, and the book is full of descriptions of fancy meals and her reveling in not flying economy and staying in upscale hotels -- which works quite well in helping to make the character feel real.
       The Book of the Most Precious Substance is a pretty busy novel, Lily almost constantly on the move, and racking up those frequent-flier miles. Doors open rather too easily for her and Lucas, left and right and generally without much of a wait, and almost everyone seems implausibly eager to share what they know about the book, but that all at least makes for a fast-moving story. The whole concept of the magic book is, of course, rather silly -- so also the book's various powers (not least, the difficulty of capturing any of it, in memory or on film, etc.) -- but is a fairly easy to accept fantasy that Gran then utilizes well.
       With its very good resolution, neatly twisted, The Book of the Most Precious Substance is a brisk and satisfying bookish thriller.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 February 2022

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The Book of the Most Precious Substance: Reviews: Sara Gran: Other books by Sara Gran under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Sara Gran was born in 1971.

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© 2022 the complete review

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