Garth Nix’s The Sinister Booksellers of Bath (2023) is the follow-up to 2020’s fantasy novel, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London. Both books are set in the 1980s, or, as Nix calls it, “a somewhat alternative 1980s.”
We reunite with familiar characters; siblings Merlin and Vivien St. Jacques, both of whom have magic, and Susan, the young art student whose father is an Ancient Sovereign, an old and powerfully magical being. The three young people face off against a dynamic villainous duo comprising another Ancient Sovereign and its wizard daughter.
The booksellers find a scrap of an old, magically endowed map. While they are studying it, Merlin gets pulled into an enchanted pocket world, out of space and time, and is trapped there. Even though Susan is trying hard to live her mundane life, Vivien seeks her out because the combination of her inherited magic and her artistic ability might help them free Merlin from the garden where he is trapped. Once the three of them are in the garden, they recognize the work—including multiple murders—of the wizard and the unknown ancient being. The race is on to stop them before winter solstice, when their planned final sacrifice will release them both fully into this world.
The “sinister” in the title comes from a Latin word for left-handed, because the St, Jacques clan (also the booksellers of the titles) divide magic into two types. Left-handed magic, which Merlin possesses, seems to be mostly battle-magic, while right-handed magic covers almost everything else. Some people wield both types. Vivien is a right-hander. I never completely understood the distinction in the magics, since much of what Vivien does works as battle-magic. Susan’s magic, however, draws directly from the mythology of the British Isles, and I understand it a lot better.
The Sinister Booksellers of Bath introduces more complexity to Susan’s world. We meet two more Ancients, as our protagonists dodge ambush after ambush and try to decipher the basics of the sacrificial rite the villains are using. It felt to me like this book was much more about asymmetrical warfare strategy and history than magic. I come to these for the magic, and I found the book disappointing in that respect. It had great moments, especially Susan’s struggle to just go to art school and work as a barmaid at a tavern, rather than assume the role of powerful elemental being. There was lots of humor, usually at the expense of the older and stuffier booksellers. As with The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, Merlin’s constant and theatrical changes of wardrobe were good fun. None of this was magic, though.
The resolution felt rushed. The Wild Hunt is referred to in the story without ever being fully explained, and when it shows up, it seems convenient rather than growing out the story’s events. Similarly, Susan’s ultimate decision for her life happens off the page, and it too is easily resolved.
I loved the 1980s trivia, though, and the description of the demesne of Sulis Minerva, the Ancient Sovereign who rules over the spring at Bath, and any connected waterways. I always enjoy the scenes with Susan’s mother, Jessamine. This book didn’t seize my interest the way the first one did, but I still enjoy it for the characters, and I’ll be there for the third one, definitely.