Book Review: “The Left-Handed Booksellers of London,” by Garth Nix

I was so so pleased to finally bang down my ARC pile and get to read The Left-Handed Booksellers of London. Garth Nix played a massive part in my life as a middle grade and YA reader – his Abhorsen series brought me life. I even got to write about it for my senior thesis in undergrad. This was marketed towards a YA audience, so it still has the trademark Nix feel, but I loved it all the more as an adult.

From the Publisher:

A girl’s quest to find her father leads her to an extended family of magical fighting booksellers who police the mythical Old World of England when it intrudes on the modern world. From the bestselling master of teen fantasy, Garth Nix.

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.

What I Loved:

  • The Premise & Worldbuild. I figured I would lump this together, since it is all about crafting a really good story. Set in 1980’s London, the country experiencing a fun cultural shift with punks and revolutionary unrest. The supernatural is underground, with the Booksellers as a sort of liaison/ bridge of the worlds. The police have a small unit that is aware of the booksellers’ and supernatural existence, and the rest of the populace is generally blissfully unaware. I loved how booksellers are the gatekeepers between the supernatural and regular worlds, since this seems to make perfect sense to me. Don’t we go to bookstores to escape reality? Don’t booksellers always have the answers, and never question any bizarre request that comes in? I also loved how kickass they are, and the subtle and fun additions of mythology, folklore, and classical literature, to boot. The cultural & timeframe references, while sparse, were fun (Susan is a pseudo-punk, the skinheads are joined with the blood cult, and the police want to pin anything unusual on IRA attacks).
  • The Rapport Between Characters. While the characters are not always as fleshed out as they could be (more on that later), I loved how Merlin, Vivian, and Susan all got along. I loved the sibling duo – Merlin as the gender fluid spontaneous and kickass sibling, his sister Vivian as the ex-badass who chose the path of knowledge and magic and has the patience to explain what is going on (a different kind of badass, to be sure). Susan, bewildered but game with what is going on, with an obstinate streak and mysteries of her own. The three make a solid dynamic trio, and I would love to see them adventure out together again.
  • The Pace. Based on other reviews, I think this may be an unpopular opinion, but I loved how fast paced Booksellers was. From the very beginning, we are thrown into a new world that has goblins and guns, skinheads and Sippers. I didn’t find it hard to follow along, and felt more of an empathy with Susan as a character for being as in the dark as the reader is.

What I Didn’t Enjoy As Much:

  • The Lack of Backstories. Honestly, this didn’t bother me as much as other reviewers, because I feel like it *may* be lead up to a potential sequel or at the very least novellas with the same characters. However, Booksellers hints at such rich backstories for both Merlin/Vivian and Susan – why is Merlin and Viv’s dad trying to come after them? Did their mom and Susan’s mom have a friendship? Is Susan’s mom just a hippy, or was she damaged from her time with Susan’s dad? I want to know more about the school that all Booksellers go to, and what happens to the “human” parent. Given that the pace of this book was so fast, I do feel like some more details could have been added here and there instead of just hints.

That is really my only major gripe with this book. I genuinely can’t picture this being a standalone, and if it is, then I will have more issues – but as of now, this read like a wonderful beginning to a new fun adventure with Garth Nix.

Real Talk:

At first, I couldn’t understand all of the negative reviews for The Left-Handed Booksellers of London. It felt like so much fun for me – different from Abhorsen and others, but yet also familiar. However, that is exactly the problem: die hard Garth Nix fans love the heavier fantasy, despite most of them being technically UF. Booksellers is more conventionally UF, reminiscent of Neverwhere with the sense of humor of The Dresden Files. It is YA, but harkens to the 80s, and in that sense, it was almost not really written for its “intended” audience. Instead, selfishly, it feels as though it were written for me – a 20-something Garth Nix junkie that can appreciate the 80s references, but still loves the YA feel and the urban fantasy adventure style.

I can’t say I would recommend it for a lot of actual young adults unless they are “old souls,” but I would absolutely recommend it for millennial readers of Nix. And as such, it gets five waves from me. Pick up your copy here or here!


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