Title: The Left-Handed Booksellers of London
Author: Garth Nix
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Published: 29th September 2020
Synopsis: From the bestselling author of Angel Mage, this new fantasy adventure set in 1980s London follows one girl’s quest to find her father, leading her to a secret society of magical fighting booksellers who police the mythical Old World when it disastrously intrudes into the modern world.
Eighteen-year-old art student Susan Arkshaw arrives in London in search of her father. But before she can question crime boss Frank Thringley he’s turned to dust by the prick of a silver hatpin in the hands of the outrageously attractive Merlin. Merlin is one of the youngest members of a secret society of booksellers with magical powers who police the mythic Old World wherever it impinges on the New World – in addition to running several bookshops, of course! Merlin also has a quest of his own: to find the Old World entity who arranged the murder of his mother. Their investigations attract attention from enemies of the Old and New Worlds. Soon they become involved in an even more urgent task to recover the grail that is the source of the left-handed booksellers’ power, before it is used to destroy the booksellers and rouse the hordes of the mythic past. As the search for the grail becomes strangely intertwined with both their quests, they start to wonder… Is Susan’s long-lost father a bookseller, or something altogether more mysterious?
From Publisher: Set in 1980s London, it follows eighteen-year-old Susan Arkshaw’s quest to find her father, leading her to a secret society of left-handed, magical fighting booksellers who police the mythical Old World when it disastrously intrudes on the modern world.
Susan arrives in London to find answers, but before she can question crime boss Frank Thringley, he’s turned to dust by the prick of a silver hatpin in the hands of the outrageously attractive Merlin.
Merlin happens to be a gender shape-shifter – equally comfortable with both sides of himself. Garth has a matter of fact, modernised approach to his classic fantasy novels, and his LGBTQ and now trans-positive fantasy novels are important for teen readers everywhere.
Susan Arkshaw is about to start studying, but first, she sets out on a quest to find out who her father is, and she stumbles into the path of the enigmatic gender shape-shifter, Merlin St Jacques. Merlin uses a hatpin on crime boss, Frank Thringley – and from this point, Susan is drawn into the world of mystical booksellers who bridge the gap between the Old World and the New World, keeping knowledge of magical beings from humans, and ensuring nobody ruins the secret. Like Susan, Merlin is on a quest of his own: finding out who killed his mother.
Susan soon finds out why Merlin and his sister have taken her under their wing, and her search for her father is set to become complicated. As the Old and New Worlds threaten to converge, Susan and her new friends must save the bookshops, and prevent Merrihaw ending Susan’s life due to her heritage. They’re on the run, trying to find the answers they all want, and a way to solve the mysteries that plague the bookseller world. But what will the cost be to Merlin and Susan?
Garth Nix has created a fabulous world, marrying the eighties with a rich fantasy world based on British mythology, and filled with diverse characters who are disabled and LGBTQIA characters, who simply exist, and are shown as full, vibrant characters who bring fabulous knowledge, power and interest to the story. These characters are representative of minorities but are not tokenistic – they show that disabled people, for example, one of Merlin’s aunts is a wheelchair user, just are. I instantly loved her, and what she did to help Merlin and Susan. Merlin the gender shapeshifter gives positive diverse gender representation and shows Merlin at ease with his identity and ability to become who he feels more at ease with at any given time.
This alternate and fantastical 1983 is diverse and accepting in many ways, but still with an undercurrent of uncertainty towards people like Susan, whose heritage is a mystery and is suspicious – but only a few characters feel threatened by this. This is the beauty of this book – everyone is accepted. Everyone can see something of themselves in these characters. It’s one of those books that moves along at a rollicking pace, and before you know it, you’ve read almost the entire book, diving between worlds, and in and out of British mythology. The most obvious nod is Merlin, and the left-handed booksellers as an iteration of the Knights of the Roundtable, in a modern setting.
The melding of mystery and fantasy is exquisitely done, and Nix includes the tropes of both as well as themes of mythic traditions that evoke a sense of whimsy, nostalgia but also a fresh take on these aspects and themes, as well as his diverse representation that makes this book work as a well-rounded and excellent addition to any shelf.
It was the title that caught my eye first, and the premise hooked me. Magical booksellers? What a concept! Of course booksellers are magic – they work magic every day when they sell books to people, and introduce them to worlds and characters that readers might not have thought they would venture into. The really good ones, the truly magic ones, get to know their customers and people in their world. I can see The Left-Handed Booksellers of London flying off the shelves and capturing the hearts and minds of readers.
A brilliant book in so many ways!