THE LEFT-HANDED BOOKSELLERS OF LONDON
by Garth Nix
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Garth Nix’s evocatively titled The Left-Handed Booksellers of London tells the story of Susan Arkwright, a young woman from England’s West Country who travels to London for the joint purposes of attending art school and trying to discover the identity of her long-missing father.
Susan’s quest starts out with an old friend of her mother’s, Frank Thringley. Unfortunately, as soon as Susan arrived at Frank’s home in long, he was killed by Merlin St. Jacques, who brings Susan along with him and introduces her to a London demimonde of magic and mythical creatures. Merlin is one of the titular left-handed booksellers of London, a secretive familial sect of wizards who help protect London from darker forces.
It quickly becomes apparent that Susan has a tie to the magical world that co-exists with our own world and Merlin, his sister, Vivian, and the other booksellers of London work to help her in her quest, as well as protect her from the other-worldly creatures that have targeted her since they became aware of her following Thringley’s death.
While the society of booksellers Nix has created is intriguing, it also feels less than fully fleshed out. He gives hints about the roles the left-handed booksellers, like Merlin, fulfill, as well as those roles taken by the right-handed booksellers, like Vivian. Nix discusses their training, indicates that there is a familial relationship between the booksellers, either natural or adoptive, and that they work with the London constabulary through a special liaison, notably Inspector Mira Greene, who has taken over the roles from Reg Holly, but Nix has left plenty of room to flesh out all the details in future volumes.
The novel has a vibe similar to that of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, focusing on a group of wizards who work with the London police force and ancient powers with links to specific locations in England. However, while Aaronovitch’s stories are police procedurals, Nix has chosen to write a story with a much more personal focus. Merlin and Vivian are eager to help Susan discover the truth about her father, no matter what it is. As it becomes apparent that it might be against the family’s overall interest, their relationship with Susan overcomes their need to follow the instructions of their elders.
Susan, Merlin, and Vivian form a quick friendship and their personalities add to the appeal of Nix’s novel. The three form a tight knit group very quickly, working to not only find Susan’s father, but to educate and protect her about the magical world in which she finds herself moving. They are both assisted and hindered by various aspects of the other booksellers, who may all have similar goals, but don’t necessarily agree upon the best way to achieve them. The three also find themselves dealing with some generational issues as the grandparents who head the booksellers have different views of the world and the way to achieve those girls come into conflict.
Perhaps the strangest aspect of the novel is the lack of consequences for the booksellers’ actions. Although there is no question that Merlin kills Thringley in the opening pages of the book, he is sure that it will be brushed under the carpet. Later actions taken against law enforcement officers as the trio work to achieve their goals are also seen as, at most, an inconvenience that won’t have lasting repercussions, placing the booksellers, and by extension, Susan, above and outside the law.
Although The Left-Handed Booksellers of London is complete in and of itself, it also feels like the entry to a larger more detailed world. Nix's broadly sketched society of the booksellers seems almost designed to invite the reader to either fill in blanks themselves or clamor for additional insight into the way the wizards work amongst themselves and how they liaise with the London police and general society. Furthermore, the focus on Susan's search for her father doesn't really give a strong view into the sort of work the booksellers generally apply themselves to.
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