Completed 10/28/2023, Reviewed 10/29/2023
Elizabeth Hand is always a good read. This one surprised me in that there is very little fantasy or sci fi in it. But the premise is that there’s a book with fantastical powers that has been found and subsequently stolen. A common premise, but Hand couches it within a mystery thriller with a drug-addled female anti-hero. The result is a taut mystery that takes you from the crowded streets of London amidst neo-Nazi nationalists to the desolation of a Swedish island on the Baltic Sea. This book is the 4th in a series featuring the protagonist, which I didn’t know when I got the book, but it reads very well as a standalone. I slipped into the story and was immediately hooked on this mess of a middle aged woman searching for something that will provide her with a windfall to make her life easier.
The book begins with Cass trying to figure out what happened to her old boyfriend. In the meantime, she runs into Gryffin, an old flame from her bookstore days. He’s a dealer in antiquarian books now and has come across an amazing find. The Book of Lamps and Banners was only ever rumored to exist. It was written by multiple people over the centuries, perhaps even by Aristotle. Filled with drawings as often seen in ancient books, it may also be the ultimate code. Gryffin has sold the book to a woman who is writing software that would help people with PTSD and other traumatic events heal from it. She purports that the book is the final piece of code she needs for her software. Suddenly everyone around them begins being murdered in a mysterious way and the book is stolen. Cass thinks if she could recover the book, she could sell it and make a fortune that would let her retire in Greece. But actually doing that is a dangerous path.
Hand does a tremendous job with character development. I felt like I was completely in the Cass’ head, right there with her as she snorts crank and drinks anything alcoholic she can get her hands on. When she finally does meet up with her old boyfriend, she drags him into her chaotic life and quest. If anything, I questioned myself on why I was so drawn to her. It’s like watching a train wreck. She somehow balances on the verge of OD, and her obsession with the book is ridiculous. However, I was in it hook, line, and sinker.
The setting is also pretty amazing, between London and the remote Swedish island. The world is on the verge of the COVID pandemic. Nazi nationalists are on the move, and the Book of Lamps and Banners ties into their occult obsession. When we move to the desolation of the island, that’s even more exciting than the bustle of London. The writing is awesome, with the perfect balance between prosy descriptions and smart dialogue.
I give this book four stars out of five. It’s a terse thriller, and a great read in a genre I usually don’t get into much. I think Hand is underrated as a fantasist although she’s won multiple awards for her shorter works. I’ll be reading one more book by her before the year is out, a sci fi piece, which I’m really looking forward to.