The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, Garth Nix (Katherine Tegen Books 978-0-06-268325-0, $19.99, 416pp, hc) September 2020.
In a version of 1983 London that is just a bit not-like the actual 1983 London, Susan Arkshaw is looking for her father. Her mother, whose memories of Susan’s conception are fond but hazy, can provide only the vaguest of clues as to his identity, thus prompting her summertime quest. Susan’s plan to find him is hopeful but unremarkable: spend the weeks before college working a part-time job in London while tracking down old family friends to see if she can gather more clues. The first night it all goes to hell, however: while she is staying at the home of an ersatz uncle she sees him murdered in an otherworldly manner before running for her life with apologetic murderer at her side and some manner of monster behind them. Susan’s life is turned upside down and, as she soon realizes, nothing about it will ever be the same again.
So begins Garth Nix’s darkly charming The Left-Handed Booksellers of London. In a style reminiscent of Charles de Lint’s Newford stories, Nix has created a London in which the drabness of reality exists beside a far more exhilarating, terrifying, and mysterious Old World. Merlin, the teen who rescues Susan that first night, is one of the booksellers of the title and part of a sprawling family who possess magical abilities and serve as wards against the dangerous creatures of “their” London. How the booksellers work with the city’s actual police while selling books from their delightful shops is just one layer of the novel’s twisty plot. The identity of Susan’s father, what happened to Merlin’s mother, and why magic is leaking out around the edges of this carefully constructed parallel society are what places both teens in constant danger. Joined by Merlin’s pragmatic and powerful sister, as well as numerous engaging supporting characters, the two protagonists set out to uncover a conspiracy while dodging creepy goblins, enduring a kidnapping by wolf (not the wolf’s fault), getting lost in the woods (in true fairytale fashion), setting out on a road trip that is not at all relaxing, and ultimately climbing up a most important mountain. Every time they get closer to the truth about Susan’s father, hidden but powerful foes align to stop them. Clearly, things are changing in the Old World, and some creatures, just like some people, fear change. Sadly, some of them are willing to do anything to stop it, and if a couple of magical booksellers and a girl pursuing her family history are unwilling to accept themselves as necessary sacrifices, well, it’s going to get ugly on all sides of the city.
The Left-Handed Booksellers of London is a splendid adventure with sly worldbuilding and the sort of protagonists/heroes who draw readers in from the very first. The relationship between the (quite literally) genderfluid, purposeful Merlin and the stubborn, determined, and suspicious Susan unfolds in the midst of barely controlled chaos that meets its thrilling promise with every page. Like de Lint, Nix gives book lovers a solid treat with this novel, and I for one would love to see him expand this London-based world in future novels.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the December 2020 issue of Locus.
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