Cass Neary is hard-up for cash and stranded in London when she hears about a rare book deal and attends the sale out of curiosity. The meeting turns deadly, and she learns that the book may have powers beyond our understanding. In the chaos that follows, Cass explores the resurgent white nationalist movement in Europe and Scandinavia, confronts her own past trauma and relies on her keen photographer’s eye as she searches for truth. The Book of Lamps and Banners is a hair-raising, mind-bending trip.
You can definitely enjoy this book on its own terms, but if at all possible, find and devour the first in the Cass Neary series, Generation Loss. (You’ll have nightmares, but I promise it’s worth it.) Author Elizabeth Hand does not shy away from bleak, unlikable characters, including her protagonist. Cass is strung out on speed and alcohol, so when she starts ranting about an app that turns people into murderers, the people around her justifiably roll their eyes. Quinn, a boyfriend from her days as a photographer in New York’s punk demimonde, enables her destruction but tries to soften its impact.
Past and present keep smashing together, as do reality and the mind-warping effects of the sought-after book. Hand’s language tightens when Cass spies a detail nobody else notices, but we feel the dead weight of her hangovers and the cranked-up jangle of her nerves. It’s unsettling but impossible to look away as elements line up to set a grim climax in motion.
Does this sound impossibly dark? It is! It’s also exquisitely suspenseful, and the paranoia suffusing the story is very much of our present moment. The idea that any single source can make sense of everything happening around us is as alluring as it is dangerous. Half of the mystery in The Book of Lamps and Banners is wondering whether Cass Neary will save us or take us down with her.