Review: The Left-Handed Booksellers of London23 December 2020
Garth Nix: The Left-Handed Booksellers of London
Allen & Unwin, 2020
ISBN, 9781760631246, $24.99, pp. 368
Garth Nix’s The Left-Handed Booksellers of London follows art student Susan Arkshaw on a quest to London to search for a man she’s never met: her father. Before she can unearth any answers about her paternal ancestry though, a prick of a silver hatpin turns her first suspect into dust. The culprit: a young wizard named Merlin St Jacques on a quest of his own to uncover the truth of his mother’s death. So begins an intertwining adventure of two individuals seeking answers in a world of whimsical magic, secret agent booksellers, and creatures that lurk in the shadows.
For my first foray into Garth Nix’s storytelling, I was impressed by the world-building that tickled my love of alternate, fantastical realities. Nix dedicated quite a lot of words to expressing the rich landscape, people, and culture of London in 1983. In fact, paragraphs spanning half a page of pure description were common throughout the novel. I did think some sections were a tad too long and wordy and, on several occasions, found myself re-reading paragraphs once, twice, then thrice. However, I wouldn’t say that I’d prefer the book without these descriptions entirely. They added texture to the narrative, giving me an effective sense of what the characters were interacting with and how they were navigating the environment. As someone who has never been to London (not for a lack of trying – thanks a lot, COVID-19), Nix’s generous dosage when setting the scene made it easy to understand the landscape and thus, allowed me to quickly become absorbed in the action occurring within it.
Speaking of action, another highlight of this book is the inventive unfolding and resolutions of conflicts. Susan and Merlin’s confrontations with mythical beings who each have rules and systems of magic pertaining to how they exist and how they can be overcome are some of the best scenes in this tale. I was most engaged in my reading when the heroes stumbled upon a new creature, and since Susan was inexperienced in the world of magic, by proxy I enjoyed lessons on entities such as the Shuck (essentially evil fog) and Urchins (think creepy children hellbent on dancing you to death). How the protagonists escaped the clutches of these creatures was just as interesting, with battles rarely ever concluding with a run-of-the-mill battle. Wit and a healthy amount of running away proved effective, much to my delight. When action sequences did occur, the pace was swift enough to keep me flicking pages. Unfortunately, these intense confrontations were few and far between. Rather than action-packed, I’d describe this narrative as a few interesting conflicts strung together by lengthy periods of a sluggish pace. At times, style over substance seemed a fitting motto.
This brings me to one of the major setbacks in my reading experience: the lacking magical element. Given that they’re featured in the book’s title, I expected the booksellers and their craft to have more prominence in the narrative. There appeared an abundance of left and right-handed agents of this secret society sworn to protect the mundane world from magical threats. However, several of these characters were so suddenly name-dropped or appeared for only a few pages and then never again, that they failed to leave an impact. Merlin’s family of booksellers by day and gunslingers by night had potential to elevate the fantastical layer of this narrative, but more time was spent detailing how his various relatives exist when they’re not engaging in wizardry or hunting down beasts. This work blends reality with fantasy to produce a world to which readers are familiar, sprinkled with a touch of the magical. However, I found that at times it was too mundane and wasn’t stimulating my love for all things weird and wondrous. When picking up this book, I expected to delve into an inventive and richly conveyed society of magic. Instead, often I was told rather than shown the fantastical aspects, some of which remained out of the picture.
As for the characters who could have bolstered the narrative in the wake of the lacking action and fantasy, sadly I found them a tad lacklustre. In appearance alone, Susan and Merlin had my attention. We have a female fantasy heroine rocking a razored head and Jimi Hendrix shirt as a nightie. Paired with her is a gender non-conforming wizard decked out in a mustard three-piece suit on one day and then a blue sundress the next. The excitement ends there though. Most of their bond relies on facing down mythical beasts together and even in moments of downtime, I was told by the narrator that they found each other attractive, rather than shown a blossoming affection between the two. In the highly emotional and climactic moments of the book’s latter third though, these two shone. I was engrossed reading about Merlin’s grief-stricken state after killing a man, and I found Susan’s reaction to the truth about her father fascinatingly complex.
Despite the aspects that I felt were lacking, I did enjoy reading The Left-Handed Booksellers of London. It introduced me to a new understanding of magical systems and societies, and the focus on books, letters and antique goods set my literary heart aflutter. Susan and Merlin were a breath of fresh air as far as fantasy heroes go, and the captivating creatures they encountered will have me going down an internet rabbit hole in search of more fascinating folkloric beasts. Garth Nix’s latest fantasy novel has me eager to check out the rest of his collection and anticipate what comes next!