Garth Nix is most famous for his dark teen books, and Sabriel and sequels have been favourites of mine since I was a kid, but he also does a great line in light-hearted adventure fantasy (see my review of the criminally underrated Newt’s Emerald), and The Left-Handed Booksellers of London is exactly that!
Book: The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix
Read before: No
Publication date: 22nd September 2020
Ownership: E-ARC and physical review copy sent free of charge by Gollancz. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Brief mentions of blood drinking; minor violence and injury, including gun violence; minor character death (off page, not graphic); mention of parental death.
Usually I try to write an introduction to the setting of a book myself, because I always feel that you can look the official blurb up yourself if you so wish, but the blurb for this one is just so perfect I’m going to include it:
In a slightly alternate London in 1983, Susan Arkshaw is looking for her father, a man she has never met. Crime boss Frank Thringley might be able to help her, but Susan doesn’t get time to ask Frank any questions before he is turned to dust by the prick of a silver hatpin in the hands of the outrageously attractive Merlin.
Merlin is a young left-handed bookseller (one of the fighting ones), who with the right-handed booksellers (the intellectual ones), are an extended family of magical beings who police the mythic and legendary Old World when it intrudes on the modern world, in addition to running several bookshops.
Susan’s search for her father begins with her mother’s possibly misremembered or misspelt surnames, a reading room ticket, and a silver cigarette case engraved with something that might be a coat of arms.
Merlin has a quest of his own, to find the Old World entity who used ordinary criminals to kill his mother. As he and his sister, the right-handed bookseller Vivien, tread in the path of a botched or covered-up police investigation from years past, they find this quest strangely overlaps with Susan’s. Who or what was her father? Susan, Merlin, and Vivien must find out, as the Old World erupts dangerously into the New.
I really wasn’t sure what to expect from this book before going in – Garth Nix has so many styles that I wasn’t sure what level of fantasy we were playing with! I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s a lighthearted urban fantasy adventure: low on crime, sex and grit, but high on fun, chases, and tea. If you enjoyed The Library of the Unwritten, the Invisible Library books, or even the Parasol Protectorate series, this should work really well for you – it doesn’t have anything particularly in common with them, but it just has that sort of entertaining, smart vibe. The prologue makes it feel like it’s going to be a very quiet book, but that’s not the case at all! Once Susan meets Merlin the plot simply rockets along, dragging you on their adventure with all its twists and turns. This is definitely the kind of book you’ll want to read in one sitting, preferably with a large cup of tea.
There’s a very British core of folklore to the magic here, which is impressive given Nix’s Australian origins, but which made me feel right at home. The characters, too, especially the booksellers, feel quintessentially British – think Doctor Who and you’ll definitely be on the right wave length. I really loved the idea of the left- and right-handed booksellers (I wish we’d got to see them do even more bookish things). I’m a sucker for a quirky dynasty and the booksellers hit this perfectly, with characterful ‘Greats’ (Great Uncle Thurston and Great Aunt Merrihew are real scene-stealers!), seemingly arcane rules, and a family history that I’d love to read more books about. I could definitely see this as a series of linked standalones focusing on different members of the family! My favourite character was the flamboyant, confident Merlin, who is the perfect balance of capable and flustered as he discovers just how deep this mystery goes – at first, he seems to Susan like he knows everything, but as events unfold we realise just how much he’s paddling to keep afloat, and it makes him really endearing. The characters remain fairly static in their development, with the focus more on what’s happening than their states of mind, but they’re still very rewarding to get to know.
Despite being fairly bloody, this never feels grim. There’s tons of dry humour, and just a hint of romance – if you’re not normally an urban fantasy reader because it’s all a bit dark and sexy, I definitely recommend this for you to see what else the genre has to offer! It’s the perfect kind of read to distract you from the state of the world: exciting enough to hold your attention, but enough of a straightforward adventure to let you relax into it. It would be a great crossover for YA readers, too, and it would make a seriously excellent TV mini-series to binge on a Sunday afternoon. I’m delighted (for the sake of my own taste) that fantasy seems to be leaning away from complicated grimdark books and more into glorious escapades like this – four out of five cats!