The Book of Lamps and Banners

by Elizabeth Hand
Mulholland Books, September 2020, $27

The Book of Lamps and Banners is intense and hard to put down. Its heroine, Cass Neary, certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. A sardonic, prickly, middle-aged punk photographer who has just hocked her beloved old Konica film camera, she depends on copious amounts of amphetamines and alcohol just to stay marginally functional. She’s on the lam in London, searching for Quinn, her enigmatic, long-lost, ex-con love, with only the cryptic words “Rotherhithe Darwin” to go on.

When she runs into an attractive old acquaintance, Gryffin Haselton, in an obscure specialty bookshop, he invites her to dinner on the spur of the moment. Gryffin is a rare-book dealer from California who is about to make the sale of a lifetime: the only existing copy of the Book of Lamps and Banners, an ancient, illuminated manuscript on magic and alchemy that may hold dangerous occult powers. Cass tags along with Gryffin to the home of his prospective buyer, where things very quickly go horribly wrong and the priceless book is stolen by an unknown intruder.

The fourth installment in Elizabeth Hand’s Cass Neary series brings Cass to a crucial turning point in her life. If she can track down the stolen manuscript, she can use the money to start over in a new life with Quinn somewhere warm and beautiful like Greece.

But she’ll have to find it first—before the obsessed tech whiz and the brutal white supremacist who each believe they can use the book’s supernatural power for their own dubious purposes, and before the authorities catch up.

Cass’s dogged pursuit of the stolen book takes her from fashionable Hampstead to seedy pubs, violent neo-Nazi rallies, and finally a remote Scandinavian island. Along the way, she is forced to confront her own personal demons and to choose between pursuing her compulsions and her dreams. Cass is astute in discerning other people’s motivations and shrewd at concealing her own, and she has a photographer’s keen eye for telling details that others overlook. Elizabeth Hand’s writing is crisp and vividly imagined, whether describing a seedy hotel room, posh townhouse, or remote winter woodland.

Jean Gazis
Teri Duerr
September 2020
Mulholland Books