Review: The Book of the Most Precious Substance by Sara Gran

This book is a fairly easy read, and Lily can be a sympathetic character at times, but ultimately this is an overstretched short story with a rushed and disappointing ending.

What promised to be something in the vein of The Ninth Gate manages, instead, to be a self-indulgent Fifty Shades of Eat, Pray, Love.
Lily Albrecht, former star novelist turned rare book trader, life ruined by a sick husband she resents and loves in equal measure, falls into an international hunt for a fabled book of sex magic, sought by a small group of fabulously rich half-wits. The pursuit of this book, Lily tells us from the start, was a dark thread being pulled by the demonic book itself, if only she’d had the ability to see the hellish consequences.

There then follows the middle 90% of the book where Lily swans around the Americas and Europe, staying in ever more luxurious hotels, being entertained to ever more delicious meals by terribly interesting millionaires and artists, and having increasingly mind-blowing sex with gorgeous men and women. The magic makes itself readily available, there’s always an easy fix to each vague barrier to getting the book and, while a couple of people die along the way, it’s never important, and even a bit funny when you throw in a couple of inept detectives pulling comedy faces rather than investigating with any kind of intelligence.

The book, we are to believe, makes it all too easy to get to it, but since the vast majority of this book is spent getting following this luxurious, naughty, frothy, tedious path, this is cold comfort to anyone hoping for some real drama, or threat, or real agency for these characters. At one point, nearing the end, yet another convenient ally shows up who bears, we are told, a terrible grudge against the current possessor of the book that would motivate him to help Lily get the book from this final foe. When the moment comes to explain this grudge, the author can’t even be bothered. We’re told it’s a “story too wild to be true. And if it was true, it wasn’t immediately clear what we could do with it.” And at that moment, I thought, this is what’s wrong with this whole book.

The ending is so rushed, the ‘twist’ so obvious and out of character, the fallout so unoriginal and drained of energy, that I genuinely wondered if it had been written by the same person who wrote the beginning. I didn’t hate the book, but I was bored of it from fairly early on and only the promise of the very heavy-handed warnings of horror to come kept me working towards the end.

I needn’t have worked so hard.

I do appreciate being given this book to review. I’m sorry I wasn’t the right audience for it and could not be more supportive. But marketing this as horror is not going to be a good fit, I believe. It’s too slight, too privileged, too sanitised and ultimately too desensitised to arouse much response.

An ARC of this book was provided by Faber Books.

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