The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix

October 8, 2020

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.

A couple of months ago, I became aware of a curious tome entitled The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix.  Needless to say, my inner bibliophile was intrigued. Booksellers? Well we know they are all kinds of cool, but why left-handed? Why specifically London?  What could it all mean? Fortunately, I had access to an early review copy. I dived in with gusto. I started smiling by the end of the first page.  I was smitten by the end of the first chapter.

Susan is away from home, on her own, for the first time. London, art school and the prospect of uncovering the identity of her mysterious father is too much of a temptation to miss. Unfortunately for Susan, her lineage is far from normal. There are dark forces that have taken an interest in the teenager. The big question is why? From the very beginning of her story, I found myself empathising with Susan. She is smart, inquisitive and surprisingly accepting of magic.

Merlin is also a brilliant character. I found myself picturing him something like Tennant-era Doctor Who, with a slightly more outrageous sense of style. At first glance, Merlin appears little more than a flamboyant dandy but it swiftly becomes evident he is far more than that. There is a steely determination to match his quick wit. Tenacious to the point of compulsion, he is the ideal guide for Susan’s introduction into his magical world.

The rest of the booksellers are a suitably eclectic bunch. Vivien, Merlin’s sister, in particular. Where Merlin is all action, with his extroverted outlook on life, Vivien is measured and thoughtful. The siblings are like two sides of the same coin and complement one another perfectly.

I’ve always felt there is something a bit otherworldly about London. There is that rich vein of history going back thousands of years that offers all manner of opportunities for any storyteller.  Look at novels like Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, Sixty-One Nails by Mike Shevdon, or The City’s Son by Tom Pollock. In each case, a detailed mythology has been crafted by the author. The city and its environs become characters in their own right. Nix has achieved the same feat here. This novel could not work anywhere other than our capital city. The hustle and bustle of the busy streets juxtaposed against quiet alleys and hidden treasures. It’s evocative stuff alright.

I love when you see evidence that an author has spent time considering the smallest details in their work. There are a couple of throwaway lines regarding the subjects of politics and The Professionals that manage to perfectly capture not only the time period, but also the fact that Nix’s alternate London is ever so slightly different than our own. As far as world building is concerned it is subtly done. In this case, less is most definitely more.

A lot of people will tell you they have daydreams about being a writer. They love the idea of sharing their stories with other people. I admit that once long ago that prospect did have a certain amount of appeal. Eventually though, I realised that’s not my daydream of choice. I didn’t want to write stories, I just want to share my love of them with others. Turns out I had never really wanted to be a writer at all. Why would I want to do that when I could daydream about being a bookseller? Don’t believe me? The blog is named after a fictional bookshop for goodness sake*.

It feels like The Left-Handed Booksellers of London has been written just for me. As I am one hundred percent sure all my favourite books are. The evidence is compelling –

  • I’m old enough to remember the time period. Ok, I was only nine years old, but that still counts.
  • I’m mildly obsessed with books. My other half might take issue with the use of the word mildly in that last sentence.
  • I’m fascinated by all aspects of British folklore and mythology. I have the tattoos to prove it.
  • I love the idea of clandestine organisations existing in the dark corners of society. Just on the periphery of our collective vision.

This novel is deliciously fantastical, I loved every page. If there is not more books featuring further adventures from the weird world of the Booksellers I will either cry or riot. A sequel had better happen. No-one wants to see either of those outcomes, trust me.

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London is published by Gollancz and is available now. Highly recommended. In fact, I’ll go further, this is likely going to be one of my top picks for 2020.

I have a couple of musical recommendations to accompany this novel. If you want to play it safe the sublime soundtrack to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell by Benoit Groulx and Benoit Charest is a nice fit. If, however you feel the urge to go with something a bit more adventurous and period appropriate, I can heartily recommend an instrumental album called Merlin by Medwyn Goodall. There’s lots of dreamy eighties synth sounds with a fantastical flavour. Either choice will enhance your enjoyment of an already great read.

*I still have hopes that one day I will have the opportunity to be part Rogatien Remillard, part Bernard Black. Until then, reviewing books will have to suffice.

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