As his characters tumble through a magical version of 1983 London, Garth Nix stuffs the pages of his latest delightful novel with references—to books, to bands, to politics and happenings that ground the increasingly magical story in the real world. There are British jokes this American reader maybe doesn’t entirely understand; newly invented creatures share pages with much older stuff. But running throughout is one particular in-joke that the former bookseller in me deeply appreciates: these booksellers, whether left-, right-, or evenhanded, very rarely engage in the specific task of selling books.
Alas, my bookselling days weren’t filled with capers, swords, grails, and Old Ones, but with spreadsheets, boxes, schedules, and emails. But the concept still works.
In Nix’s London, two particular bookstores are much more than what they seem. The booksellers who work in them have a second, bigger job: keeping the lines between the magical and the mundane world fairly clear. The left-handed booksellers are the front-line responders, the ones most likely to wave swords and pull off daring rescues, while the right-handed have a different skill set, more to do with spells and sly magic. Their shops are impossible: the stories go up too far and go down too deep, and if one is mostly a normal bookstore, warm and inviting, the other is home to quite a few things that are decidedly not books.
When 18-year-old Susan Arkham heads to London in search of her father, what she finds instead is a whole new world—or rather, the Old World. Her introduction to the magical underside of the city comes via a stylish young man who dispatches Susan’s supposed uncle—actually a magical creature himself—with a fancy pin. The pin-wielder is a bookseller, naturally. Named Merlin, no less. When a magical being shows up on Merlin’s tail, he and Susan take off running and pretty much don’t stop until the end of the story. They run through London, through the countryside, through magical places. They get rides from cab-driving booksellers and motorbike-riding booksellers, visit both magical bookstores, speak with quite a few magical beings, and are warned away from eating the bookshop’s stargazy pie. (Look it up. I dare you.)
The Left-Handed Booksellers of London has a lightness that propels it through a considerable amount of action, including violence and death that can feel oddly bloodless. Susan, after an initial round of bafflement at her situation, quickly takes a lot of very strange things in stride. It’s virtually impossible, thanks to her name, the setting, and a reference to C.S. Lewis, not to think of Susan Pevensie and the adventures she didn’t get to have. But Nix also invokes Susan Cooper, and the mythological threads in her The Dark is Rising series.
Nix’s Susan, punkish and capable, is supremely likable but can occasionally seem thin on the page next to the charismatic, energetic Merlin. His first introduction is via his clothes: “A slight young man with long fair hair, wearing a pre-owned mustard-colored three-piece suit with widely flared trousers and faux alligator-hide boots with two-inch Cuban heels.” Merlin loves all clothes; sometimes he wears suits, sometimes he wears dresses, and he’s thinking of trying a new gender—which booksellers can magically, if not easily, do. This detail is a small part of the story, but it’s clearly important to Nix, who said in a recent interview, “I think this is similar to my writing about places I wish really existed, that I could visit. While it isn’t easy for the booksellers to physically become the gender they feel they are, it is far easier than it is in this world. I think it would be good to be, as Merlin says, ‘somewhat shape-shiftery.’”
I love this about Merlin, who isn’t labeled or defined by his gender or his style, and I love Susan’s shaved head and Docs and the slow burn of their attraction to each other. They’re too busy running away from tricksy goblins and the undead to get together in anything like a hurry, but they’re clearly on that path. Sure, their relationship is based on an intense experience (and according to Keanu Reeves in Speed, those never work), but there’s a sweet gentleness to the way they’re both curious and unsure about each other in their rare moments of quiet.
Booksellers is a standalone, which is a bit of a disappointment. I want to go back to these bookshops, back into Nix’s magical London, and back on an adventure with Merlin and the rest of the booksellers, whose intriguingly varied skills and backgrounds beg to be explored. Susan’s quest for her father is cleverly told and beautifully built into the very geography of England, but it also follows some very well-trod paths. I’d love to see the rest of the diverse cast of booksellers get to tell their tales, from the grandmothers with their ghostly dogs to the cab-driving Aunt Audrey. (Fans of the Old Kingdom books know that Nix can write excellent, complicated, skilled young women. I’d love to see him do the same for a fortysomething Cockney bookseller.)
Reading novels has been something of a challenge for the last few months, but The Left-Handed Booksellers of London was just the right balm for an exhausted brain: a compelling magical romp, both familiar and inventive. Fantasy readers may see quite a few plot beats coming, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to enjoy in how Nix gets there. The image of a sinister murmuration of starlings, hunting through the fields, isn’t likely to leave my mind soon. These bookshops would be worth visiting at any time—but they feel like a special treat while I can’t set foot in a real one.