The Left-Handed Booksellers of London ~ Garth Nix

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.

19 thoughts on “The Left-Handed Booksellers of London ~ Garth Nix

  1. A Life in Books September 22, 2020 / 5:00 pm

    As an ex-bookseller, I’m delighted by the concept of booksellers existing on multiple levels! Not my usual literary territory but I’m quite taken by the idea of this one.


    • Café Society September 22, 2020 / 5:01 pm

      Yes, I liked that idea as well, Susan. Good to curl up with on a long cold winter night.


  2. Calmgrove September 22, 2020 / 7:06 pm

    I’ve skimmed very quickly over your review — sorry! — because I’ve a copy of this waiting for me (with Piranesi!) at the local bookshop. I’m interested to read it because Nix is on record at saying he doesn’t like stories about the Arthurian mythos, as I reported in a review ( of a collection called Across the Wall. Also, the fact it starts in the vicinity of Bath intrigues because I used to live in Bristol and Bath was a place I often visited.


    • Café Society September 23, 2020 / 3:28 pm

      Really, the only reference to the Arthurian mythos is in the names. Nix just seems to be referencing as many possible little resources as he can. I think you’re going to enjoy this.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Calmgrove September 23, 2020 / 4:09 pm

        Yay! I now have my copy so… 😁


      • Calmgrove October 7, 2020 / 10:15 am

        And now I’ve read it, and your review too, and it’s everything you say! And I picked up on the literary references and second breakfast and everything too. 😊 I shall be echoing a lot of your points in my review too!


  3. Kat September 22, 2020 / 8:09 pm

    I do want to read this now that I’ve read your review. I really can’t resist the title, either. And Garth Nix himself recently wrote a short essay at Tor, “Once a Bookseller, Always a Bookseller.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Café Society September 23, 2020 / 3:29 pm

      I hope you enjoyed as much as I did, Kat. I know it’s a fantasy, but ironically it seems like a return to normality for a little while.


  4. Julé Cunningham September 22, 2020 / 9:27 pm

    That title is irresistible, someone knows their audience well! Your description brought to mind Genevieve Cogman’s Invisible Library series, librarians, not booksellers, but also full of imaginative scenarios.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Café Society September 23, 2020 / 3:30 pm

      I haven’t read those, Julé. I must see if I can find copies. I love anything that references books.


  5. Laura September 23, 2020 / 7:36 am

    This sounds completely amazing. I’ve loved the Abhorsen books since I was a teenager and my favourite sequence in the whole series is the time Lirael spends in the Library of the Clayr, so the bookselling elements in this one sound so promising. I also grew up near Bath!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Café Society September 23, 2020 / 3:31 pm

      Have you read The Keys of the Kingdom books, Laura? I tried the first one but didn’t enjoy it. Now I’m wondering if I should try again.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Laura September 23, 2020 / 4:37 pm

        No, they didn’t appeal to me. I loved the first Seventh Tower book as a teenager but found the next few very disappointing, and I also liked Shade’s Children but don’t think I’d get on with it now. So I think I feel the same way as you about Nix’s other work!


  6. kaggsysbookishramblings September 23, 2020 / 8:39 am

    Sounds most entertaining, and having in the past read a good deal of fantasy (including that notionally aimed at young people!) I think I might get quite a lot of this!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Café Society September 23, 2020 / 3:32 pm

      It would be a light relief from a lot of your reading Karen and I’m sure you would enjoy it.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. BookerTalk September 24, 2020 / 4:52 pm

    I’m not dismissing it because its for younger readers, but because it’s too much fantasy for me. I just can’t get into those kinds of books


    • Café Society September 26, 2020 / 9:16 am

      Well we all have different tastes, Karen and thank goodness that’s the case.


  8. Margaret September 25, 2020 / 6:31 am

    This appeals to me, first the title caught my eye, then the referencing and then Nix sounds like a good storyteller. This is going on my wishlist. 🙂


    • Café Society September 26, 2020 / 9:17 am

      I hope you enjoy it Margaret. It’s different from the books you normally read but it is a good story.


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