The Left-Handed Booksellers of London

I first reviewed Garth Nix back in 1996 after Sabriel won the Aurealis award for Best Fantasy Novel in both the Children and Adult categories. It quickly became clear that Nix did not really need me, and I would be better off reviewing those Aussie writers who had not yet broken out to an international audience. Also he was writing a lot of books in the same world, and that makes it hard to keep up. However, he has remained a friend and I try to catch up with him when he’s in the UK. When I saw that he’d produced a new book in an entirely different world, with a rather intriguing title, I decided to give it a go.

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London features a sort of magical secret service whose job it is to protect the realm from supernatural enemies. Their cover is that they run bookshops. Well, the HQ of UNCLE was under a barber’s shop, so why not? The booksellers of the left-handed persuasion tend to be the action-hero types. Those of the right-handed persuasion are more intellectually inclined.

Nix has chosen to set the book in the 1980s. Partly that’s because he spent some time in the UK during that period, but of course it also means he doesn’t have to worry about things like mobile phones. But this is not our 1980s. Following the election of Clementina Atlee’s government in 1945, Britain has become a world-leader in gender equality. This doesn’t have much impact on the book, but it does allow Nix to have a lot more women characters than he might have had. It also makes space for jokes such as a gender-swapped version of The Professionals. I’m assuming that it starred Diana Rigg and Joanna Lumley.

I note in passing that one of the things I praised Sabriel for (and I had forgotten this because it is a long time since I read the book) is that it contains mention of childbirth and menstruation. That’s way ahead of its time.

However, back with the book, you’ll be wanting to know about the plot. The main character is Susan Arkshaw who has come up to London from the West Country (not Darkest Somerset, somewhere between Bath and Chippenham, so Corsham or Box I guess) to study at art school. While she’s in the big city she hopes to track down clues to the identity of her father, whom her mother Never Talks About.

Susan’s first point of contact, Frank Thingley, an old man whom she knows only from regular Christmas cards, turns out to be involved in organised crime. But then he gets murdered by a young man called Merlin who appears to be able to do magic.

Merlin is an interesting character. He is left-handed, but he’s no Jane Bond, or even Josephine Solo. He’s elegant, fashion-conscious, and prone to wearing dresses, which causes him to be mistaken for a woman on a regular basis. So more like Jason King without the ridiculous moustache. Paired with Susan’s resolutely dyke-ish dress sense, the two make an interesting couple. I’m not sure that Nix really knows what to do with this, and if there are sequels (of which hints have been dropped) I’d like to see him make more of Merlin’s non-binary nature.

Where was I? Oh yes, the plot. It soon turns out that powerful magical forces are stirring. Some of them have strong connections to the criminal underworld. There are bent coppers. (Of course there are, this is the 1980s.) And Susan’s having just passed her 18th birthday turns out to be intimately connected to all of this.

I have to say that if you want a fantasy story that is intimately rooted in the landscape and magical traditions of the British Isles then you should be reading Liz Williams, not Garth Nix. That’s not to say that the Nix book is bad, it is just that Williams knows the subject intimately whereas Nix has to work at it. But that aside, and Nix’s strange antipathy to stargazy pie and David Essex, this is a fun book written by someone with two and a half decades of experience of writing best selling fantasy. You can’t go far wrong with that.

book cover
Title: The Left-Handed Booksellers of London
By: Garth Nix
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
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