I was a tad nervous going into this review. While I have loved Garth Nix’s books in the past (Sabriel is on my list of all-time favourite settings gimme those necromancy bells) I have to say his adult stuff hasn’t met the mark for me yet. I was deeply confused by Angel Mage and so went into his latest book The Lefthanded Booksellers of London with more than a little nervousness…
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 had a pretty good time reading this book – and I think overall it’s enjoyable. I certainly think it was more coherent than Angel Mage was and had some of the ‘fish out of water’ parts that I really enjoyed in Sabriel. I’m a bit of a sucker for magical/alternate worlds where there are secret societies of people with magic alongside the real world (I think because I’m still waiting for them to approach me and teach me magic…) so this ticked that box for me. I liked the idea of the booksellers and, while I might have liked a little bit more detail as to how the magic worked, I thought that overall that sense of ‘magic meets mundane’ was done well.
I liked Susan as a character – is anyone surprised I enjoyed the art student who wears Doc Martens? I also loved Vivien because again I am a cliché! Merlin I found slightly less compelling. It felt like Garth Nix dipping his toe into writing a gender non-conforming character but not quite committing – so Merlin will turn up wearing a dress but there’s no real discussion of gender expression within the book. Again that may just be a) it’s the 1980s or b) that’s not what the book focusses on so it’d be gratuitous to include it. It just sparks my ‘is this a cis person trying to write this perspective oh no brace for impact’ response which may be unfair…then again we’ve been burned before…
While reading I was struck by the feeling that this very much felt like an aged up…Percy Jackson-esque story. I know that’s likely because that is my biggest reference point for this kind of story and there are likely more adult examples that I just haven’t read but that was the bell that was ringing for me. I will say it did feel quite ‘young’ as a book, as though a YA story had been aged up to allow for the characters to be employed as booksellers in the 1980s. So the book does lean rather towards the New Adult feel – which might be a big selling point for you!
This is a fun adventure story and definitely hit some of my favourite fantasy tropes. I think what would have made it stand out a little more would have been more detail in the worldbuilding. We learn what some of the beasties they must face are but we don’t really get more than surface information. In some books that works but with a setting where we’ve got booksellers, keepers of knowledge, I was expecting a veritable bestiary on the pages. Nix opted to focus instead on dialogue and action – not a bad thing just not what I prefer in books.
I’d say this would be a good book for those wanting to read some adult fantasy who normally read YA – it crosses that bridge quite nicely. While I don’t think it blew my mind it was a perfectly enjoyable read and if someone asked for recommendations I would probably add this to the ‘magic meets mundane’ pile.
My rating: 3/5 stars
I received a free digital advanced review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley – all opinions are my own.
The Lefthanded Booksellers of London is out September 24th
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What say you? Will you be reading this? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
I agree with you re Nix’s recent books. I feel as though he’s trying, and the world is set up but the characters/plot are just not quite fully formed. However, this one had enough echoes of the original Old Kingdom books to leave me just about content.