The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix
1983-era London, with a half-twist toward the fantastic, mingles with ancient British mythology in Garth Nix’s new urban fantasy, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London (2020). Art student Susan Arkshaw, a punkish eighteen-year-old from rural western England, takes leave of her loving, vague mother and heads to London to try to find the father she’s never met. She starts with an old family acquaintance, “Uncle” Frank Thringley, but Frank turn out to be, in rapid succession, (a) a crime boss, (b) disincorporated by the prick of a magical hatpin, and (c) a Sipper — which is a milder type of blood-sucker than a vampire.
The wielder of the silver hatpin is attractive nineteen-year-old Merlin St. Jaques, who sweeps Susan out of Frank’s house, just ahead of a horse-sized louse and an eerie black fog hiding more dangers. Merlin is one of London’s organization of booksellers who engage with the magical world, policing its interaction with what normal humans think of as reality. As one of the left-handed booksellers, he actively fights against dangerous magical incursions into our world; the right-handed booksellers are charged with the more intellectual types of protection, including researching the magical world and casting spells to counter threats.
Those supernatural threats appear to be targeting Susan. Merlin takes an interest in Susan, both because she needs protection while she continues her search for her father and because his ongoing investigation into his mother’s death six years ago may have some connection to Susan’s mystery. And also because, well, she’s caught his eye, though Susan doesn’t quite trust this overly-charming young man and is determined to keep him at arm’s length. As Merlin and his sister Vivien (one of the right-handed type of booksellers) seek to protect Susan and introduce her to their world, the dangers of the magical Old World explode.
Nix was inspired to write The Left-Handed Booksellers of London (as he related in his acknowledgements at the end) by a fortuitous comment from a left-handed bookseller in Leith. He pulls on his memories from his first trip to the United Kingdom in 1983 (among other things, he hiked the Old Man of Coniston, a famous mountain in the Lake District) and his past experience working as a bookseller. It was both amusing and engaging as I realized just how many actual British landmarks he has woven into the plot of this novel. And also uniquely British foods — Branston pickle sandwiches were a revelation, and I don’t think I’ll soon recover from checking out pictures of stargazy pie.
Susan is an appealing main character but somewhat of a stock character. Though somewhat bewildered by the magical events that suddenly beset her, she’s unfazed. Susan clearly has a destiny and moves unswervingly toward it. She’s not nearly as vivid as Merlin, who’s brilliant and frustrating, whiny and brave, wrapped up into one charming and exasperating package. He’s also somewhat gender-fluid (apparently booksellers have the ability to shift sexes if they choose) and enjoys wearing the occasional dress, though after establishing this early on, Nix doesn’t follow through on this point, leaving me muttering about Chekhov’s gun.
As Susan settles into her new life in London and is shown the secret life of booksellers by Merlin and Vivien, Nix delves for a time into the bookstore settings, which will be a natural attraction for readers who love books. Humorously, the Old Bookshop sells new books and the New Bookshop sells older ones, along with other collectibles and rare objects. These magic-infused shops are described in great detail and, while the world-building is reasonably interesting, the pacing does start to lag. But at the half-way point, there’s a dramatic turn in the plot, and the rest of the book kept me turning pages late into the night.
The Left-Handed Booksellers of London is an engaging fantasy adventure that immerses the reader in British mythology and society, with a slice of bookstore culture on the side.
I agree with so much of Tadiana’s review. First of all, I thoroughly enjoyed this delightful magical period-piece romp, and the magical society who work as booksellers. The story moved along briskly from its opening pages, with great descriptions and lively dialogue.
Like Tadiana, I thought Susan accepted the supernatural aspect of things very quickly, although the prologue, with her fleeting contact with magical beings, might explain that a bit. Otherwise, I set aside some of my questions (like, in what way is Merlin “shape-shifty?”) thinking they might be answered in subsequent volumes. I’m hoping that, at least.
Most of my quibbles are just that — quibbles. For instance, while I love the title and the story Nix tells in the afterword about how the book came about, in fact, most of the heavy lifting in The Left-Handed Booksellers of London seems to be done by the right-handed book-sellers, who are the ones who do magic. In a couple of places, I thought the corrections Merlin and Vivien make seem unnecessarily nitpicky, like when they both insist that “Uncle Frank,” a sipper (which means he drinks your blood) isn’t a vampire because vampires don’t exist. That circular reasoning isn’t explained. And if Susan wants to call a blood-sucking villain a vampire, why do they care?
In at least one spot I thought a scene existed solely for its visuals. When Vivien and Merlin get caught in Silvermere, I thought that whole dining room scene existed merely so we could see the siblings in virtually identical clothing. I call that a quibble, but I enjoyed that visual, so it’s not really a complaint.
I thought the villains were easily identified, but I was so captivated by the old British Isles folkloric characters, the magic and the whimsey of the story that I wasn’t distracted or disappointed by that.
A small part of the story that held my interest concerned Susan’s mother, and the way Susan has misjudged her over the years. She is much different, and a more interesting character, than I expected when we first met her, and her experience fits perfectly within the folklore Nix is mining. I thought this was a detail other books of this type miss or skate over, and I was glad to see Susan’s mother at the end, with her issues resolved too.
I loved Merlin’s obsession with fashion and hope we see more of that in upcoming books (and I hope there are upcoming books!). The Left-Handed Booksellers of London was a delightful read, lots of fun.