Now really, I ask you, what self-respecting book blogger could resist a book with a title like that? The questions that it raises! What about the right-handed booksellers of London? What, it eventually becomes apparent I should be asking, about the evenhanded booksellers of London? And why does it matter in the first place?
Nix’s novel does not, however, begin in London. It begins somewhere in the West of England, not far from Bath, at 5:42 am on May Day, 1983. Susan Arkshaw is celebrating her 18th birthday and wondering again just who the father she has never met might have been. Susan is planning to make her way to London, to study art when the new academic year begins but in the interim to try and find out something about this mysterious father of hers. Is he in any way related to the mystical dreams that she has been having or are they simply the product, as she muses, of “a childhood diet of Susan Cooper, Tolkien and CS Lewis”? She intends to start by visiting ‘Uncle’ Frank, who always sends and signs a Christmas card and who might, therefore, just be a possible candidate. However, no sooner does she arrive at the home of Frank Thringley than he is ‘disincorporated’ by a young man who turns out to be one of the left-handed booksellers of the title. Not only is Uncle Frank not Susan‘s father, apparently he is not human at all but what the young man, who introduces himself as Merlin, describes as a ‘Sipper’, a blood-drinker and thus one of the evil mystical folk from the Old World of magic against whom the booksellers, both left and right handed, (‘one for the books and one for the hooks’) are ranged. Why booksellers you might well ask. Well, as Merlin goes on to explain, the ‘normal world is the top layer of a palimpsest’ and ‘under certain conditions or at particular times, the Old World comes to the top…Booksellers can exist on multiple levels at the same time…and for various reasons we’ve ended up…policing, I suppose’.
Susan is confused. Why should one of the denizens of the Old World be concerned with her? In fact, as she and Merlin make their way across London it soon becomes apparent that Uncle Frank is not the only Old World creature seeking to do her harm. Urchins or goblins surround the couple as they pass along Mayfair and very nearly trap them in the mystical fair ground from which the thoroughfare takes its name. What is it about Susan that attracts so much Old World attention? Is it to do with her absent father? The Left-handed Merlin and his Right-handed sister, Vivien, set out to help her find the answers.
‘Merlin’ and ‘Vivien’ – I trust you are making the connection. You should be, because this book is riddled with nods in the direction of other fantasy writers: writers who, presumably, have provided gateways to the Old World for their readers over the decades if not over centuries.
Children’s writers…quite often they discover the key to raise some ancient myth or release something that should have stayed imprisoned, and they share that knowledge via their writing. Stories aren’t always merely stories, you know.
Part of the pleasure of this book for anyone who is as soaked in fantasy and children’s literature as I am, is picking out the references to other works. Susan doesn’t leave home before indulging in my favourite meal, Tolkien’s ‘second breakfast’. Merlin has clearly been spending time in the company of Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant as both of them have a tendency to attract what can only be described as ‘weird shit’ and like all good wizards, as teenagers booksellers are sent off to their own very special school ‘at Wooten Hall’.
I am a great fan of Garth Nix’s Abhorson novels, but I’ve never really been able to engage with any of his other books, so although the title definitely intrigued me, I have to say that I picked this up with a little trepidation. I shouldn’t have worried, I absolutely loved it. So much so, that I am disappointed to see that there is no indication that there might be a follow-up, or even a series. I could happily spend a lot more time in the company of the Left-Handed Booksellers of London. Please don’t dismiss this book just because it’s intended for a teenage readership. Anyone who enjoys good fantasy writing will enjoy this, not the least because of the homage it pays to so many of its predecessors, to which it is a worthy successor.
With thanks to Gollancz and NetGalley for the review copy.