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.
Even as I sit here writing this review I am contemplating whether it’s a good idea or not. The reason being that I have never written a negative book review. Well, there’s a first time for everything. So, if you are a fan of Garth Nix’s books (this is the first book of his that I have read), I strongly advise you not to read on. But, if you have no strong feelings either way, then please do. Overall, I would summarise my feelings about The Left-Handed Booksellers of London in this way: It did not live up to my expectations. But, before going into the reasons why, I will first tell you the things that I did enjoy about this book…
The World Building
The Left-Handed Booksellers of London is set in (you guessed it) London, in the year 1983. But, alongside the familiar modern setting of the New World, there exists the mythic realm of the Old World. The Booksellers, magical beings who are part of the St. Jacques family, are in charge of making sure that the Old World does not encroach on the New. There are two types of booksellers: the left-handed are fighters, and the right-handed are intellectuals. And, when they are not protecting the world from dangerous mythic beasts, the booksellers actually run a couple of bookstores. This is the world in which Susan Arkshaw, the protagonist of the story, finds herself in. And as she learns more about the Old World with the help of booksellers Merlin and Vivien, so too does the reader.
The world building was probably my favourite aspect of this book – who wouldn’t love the idea of a secret organisation of magicians hiding behind the facade of an ordinary bookstore? I also enjoyed the cultural references that Nix made, especially to well-known works of literature and art; it definitely shows a thoughtfulness and attention to detail. However, I do think that the world Nix created lacked some depth; in my opinion, I think that he would have been able to explore more of the nuances of the Old World had he spread the action out across a series of books.
The driving force of the plot – at least for me – was the mystery. There are two main problems which need to be resolved; the first is the identity of Susan’s father. The second is the Old World entity responsible for the death of Merlin and Vivien’s mother. Soon it becomes clear that the two mysteries are not unrelated.
Although I really struggled to get through this book and at times considered just leaving it unfinished, the thing which kept me going was the mystery; I found the outcome completely unpredictable, which is impressive considering the fact that predictability is a common flaw in narratives of mystery.
Now for the not-so-good parts…
The premise of this book was really promising, hence why I picked it up at the bookstore, but I was left with a feeling of disappointment. I felt that the plot was too repetitive; an endless series of attempted attacks on Susan and the booksellers. This high-energy, fast-paced action was not balanced out by more slow-pace scenes, which ultimately made the story feel very rushed. Because of this I felt that I could never fully relax or settle into the narrative.
Another consequence of the unvaried pace of the plot was that I never felt very attached to the characters. While Nix did a good job in creating a diverse cast of characters for his novel, I feel that I didn’t really got to know them — even Susan, the protagonist. The action-packed plot didn’t allow for those quieter moments in which the reader discovers more about the background of the character, or their internal thoughts and feelings. And, as a result, the characters felt very distant and unrelatable.
Finally, I want to discuss romance. I am a big fan of romance and from the plot it seemed that the relationship between Merlin and Susan was going to be a big feature of the novel. However, it felt more like an afterthought. I appreciate that this is primarily a fantasy and not a romance, but there are so many books in this genre which have done romance really well. From the beginning of the story, it was clear that Merlin and Susan were attracted to each other but they did nothing about that until the end of the novel. The absence of any build-up to this point made the relationship between them feel very flat and, as with world building, lacking any depth.
In summary, I was quite disappointed with The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, which seemed so promising from its premise. And although I enjoyed some aspects of the book, especially the mystery and world building, the plot and characters felt flat and detached. On the other hand, other readers have given this book amazing five-star reviews, which serves as a reminder that we all have different tastes. What I have written in this blog post is only an opinion, and although I wouldn’t recommend this book myself, I encourage you to make up your own mind.