The Left-Handed Booksellers of London is a rollicking urban fantasy by the prolific Garth Nix, taking place in a slightly-alternate version of the titular city, in the year 1983.
Shortly after her 18th birthday, Susan Arkshaw leaves rural life for the big city to find her fortune and discover the identity of her long lost father. Before long, she is whisked away into the dangerous magical underbelly of old Lun-Dun guided by the charismatic bookseller, Merlin St. Jacques; an agent of a secret society of sorcerous operatives, trained to keep fantastic occurrences safely away from the oblivious public. Merlin believes that Susan – and her mysterious father – are somehow connected to his own private investigation, and the two must help each other if they are to resolve their respective goals.
What follows is a mad-cap journey filled with memorable characters and heart-pumping action, all steeped in a convincing mythology thick with the folklore of its locale. Overall, I was thoroughly satisfied with this novel, finding the plot interesting and action-packed, the characterization sharp, and the realization of the world and incorporation of its accompanying mythos, exceptional. The pacing of the plot points could perhaps have been improved by reducing the many bits of exposition detailing various magical elements during the first quarter-or-so of the book, though this did indeed pay dividends later, and the story undeniably builds up to an exciting and satisfying crescendo.
While the writing itself was generally a pleasure to apprehend, I will note that the author employs an uncommon perspective device, as the point of view shifts between characters, sometimes mid-scene, although it is not an omniscient narration. It’s an affectation of Nix’s that I have scrutinized in a previous work, and while not a style often used in current literature, he ably leverages it here to expedite the narrative by informing the reader directly as to the thoughts of a particular character (in this case, primarily Merlin) without having to later review the scene from their viewpoint or contrive an inference for the reader to understand what they were feeling in that moment. Mostly though, the story is told either through Susan or Merlin, in their own chapters and in more traditional fashion.
Modern readers will be pleased to find transgender representation in the form of the magically gender-fluid, dress-wearing and gun-toting Merlin; a prime candidate for a groundbreaking genre role as a dashing and unflappable warrior. However, those of the most stringent social conscience may be disappointed to see this aspect of the character fade to the background, as the male representation of Merlin quickly takes centre stage; the opportunity to truly showcase such a lead, arguably sidestepped. Regardless, I appreciate the way in which Nix nonchalantly incorporates this element into his character work, and furthermore, respect that he’s laid groundwork for future stories destigmatizing this facet of society.
Fans of Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Butcher’s Dresden Files will appreciate the familiar territory and enjoy the balance struck between irreverence, drama and action, while those new to the genre will surely find this to be an engaging and well-executed entry point into urban fantasy. There is certainly a lot left to mine here, and I could well see this setting be home to many future stories of The Left-Handed Booksellers of London.
Read The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix