I’m on record as saying that Elizabeth Hand became my favorite living writer last year. I just realized that was true halfway through a story in her first collection Last Summer at Mars Hill. Those were largely horror adjacent literary fantasy stories. I also read her novel Glimmering last year, her big swing for the fences novel which is a masterpiece. Both were on my best books read for the first time in 2020 list. In recent years she’s been writing more crime than anything, and 2019’s Curious Toys and Generation Loss, the first Cass Neary book are some of her best work. The next two Cass Neary books were also very good. So I was primed to really enjoy this. I did enjoy it, if not quite so well as the rest of her crime novels.
The Book of Lamps and Banners picks up in the aftermath of the previous book with Cass Neary stranded in London. She runs into Gryffin Haselton, a rare book dealer who was a character in Generation Loss. He has in his possession the titular book, which is beyond rare. He is poised to sell it to a tech billionaire who views the book as a primitive code that can alter the minds of readers, even if they don’t understand the language. She is working on an app that does similar things. This allows for a low burn scifi element that is absent from the other books. But the middleman in the transaction is murdered, the book stolen, and thus begins Neary’s trip through another harrowing, case is the wrong word, but a series of events. There are white nationalists, murderers and aging British singers. Neary’s aging punk world weariness and borderline nihilism makes her one of the most compelling characters in contemporary fiction. Her world has been moved forward in time, so that these events happened just before the pandemic hit.
That said, I felt like the, admittedly mild, sf elements of a dangerous app conceived to help assuage PTSD but instead triggering it, falling into the hands of dangerous neonazis sat oddly in a Cass Neary book. I like both the noir novel and the sf novel well enough to recommend this, but it did bring it down a notch or so from the previous books for my money. I almost wish they were two separate books. But I still recommend it. Start with Generation Loss, though. If this is the end of the Neary series, I like where Cass ended up, though I would read another without hesitation.
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