What a delight it can be to be wrong. In 2020, I thought that Garth Nix’s The Left-Handed Booksellers of London was a standalone novel—which seemed a shame, given what a deliciously complex magical world Nix created, full of Old Ones and unusual bookshops and mythological mash-ups. And here we are: the book has a well-deserved sequel. The Sinister Booksellers of Bath moves the action to the titular town in part, but really sends its characters all over the English countryside, trying to outwit a mysterious entity that has its eye on Susan Arkshaw.
Nix’s booksellers work out of bookstores—in Bath, it’s the inaccurately named Small Bookshop—but the work they do is the kind that means their shops have more floors than they ought to, and their specializations are less genre-based than tactical. The left-handed booksellers are field agents, essentially; the right-handed are the more academic. An even-handed bookseller does a bit of both. All of them are invested in keeping the peace, and the divide, between Old World and new.
In the first book, Susan learned that her father was no mere mortal but the Old Man of Coniston, an “Ancient Sovereign, as the most powerful entities of the Old World were known.” Being the child of a mortal and an Ancient Sovereign is not exactly like being a demigod, but … it’s not normal, either. And Susan, as this story picks up, would very much like a bit more normality. Some things in her life are constant—her shaved head, her signature Docs—but much else is shifty and strange, and at odds with her desire to be a plain old art student, at least for a while.
Those of us who always wanted to find a doorway to Narnia may occasionally get a bit tired of the “I just want things to be normal” refrain, but it’s refreshing that Susan isn’t after a generic sort of “normal” but the specific normal of time and peace to study her art. She and her left-handed bookseller beau, Merlin, have agreed to see each other once a week, as part of Susan’s efforts to not get too wrapped up in Old World magical happenings. But when Merlin gets trapped in a peculiar garden, Susan is exactly the person the other booksellers need in order to save him.
Unfortunately, this brings Susan to the attention of a powerful and unknown entity with a magical story of its own. Nix’s cheerily headlong plot wraps in a whole passel of unsolved murders, some awkward cops (and some less so), more booksellers (left, right, and even-handed) than I could possibly keep straight, along with the distinct suggestion that children’s writers sometimes know more than one might expect about the Old World. (“Children’s writers!” says Merlin’s right-handed sister, Vivien. “They are always so much work.”)
The charm of these books is largely due to the irrepressible Merlin, who winds up in said strange and dangerous garden because he can’t resist a mysterious bee; he also happens to be wearing Elizabet Bennet’s outfit from a BBC Pride and Prejudice adaptation (he borrowed it from a wardrobe assistant, as one does):
This stunning apparition wore a fox fur tippet over a high-waisted morning dress of pale-blue Italian taffeta with golden ribbons at the neck and wrists, a single white kid leather glove on the left hand, and a straw hat also beribboned in gold, atop a lace coif. The ensemble’s historical accuracy was somewhat spoiled by the addition of a surprisingly large carpetbag and the toes of black Dr. Martens boots peeking out from under the floor-length dress.
This sort of description appears just about every time Merlin changes clothes, which he does quite often. The dress doesn’t fare so well, in the end. But it’s that loving detail—about Merlin’s clothes; about this alternate 1980s England—that gives these books such a specific tone. Every car, every outfit, every baked good: Nix elaborates on them all. The “normal” world is rendered as vividly as the magical one, ordinary concerns as pressing as magical ones. Sure, the ancient being Sulis Minerva wants to have a chat with Susan, but also, her student apartment is cold and run-down, and the booksellers’ safe house comes with a live-in cook and library, in the end it’s just practical, really, to take advantage of such situations as best one can.
If the pacing here isn’t quite consistent—the middle slumps a bit, the end tumbles end over end over cop over bookseller toward its conclusion—it’s nothing so rough that it ought to be held against the book. I would like to better know the other booksellers; I would love more depths to the mythology, which in this book involves a stone entity with some very interesting powers and family issues. But I want those things because I love the mythology and secondary character of Nix’s Old Kingdom books, and here he’s doing something else: writing a darkly magical romp.
Yes, there’s murder; but there are also malicious freemasons and animated statues and historical reenactments and all Merlin’s (and Susan’s!) clothes and Susan’s vivid dreams and a not-inconsiderable amount of time spent in motorcades that make Susan feel a bit like Princess Di. There are gargoyles and all kinds of stone animals and a certain emphasis on delicious cakes (the boozier, the better). This is cup-of-tea-and-read-it-in-one-sitting writing, not shallow but swift. It’s only later that you find that what’s stuck with you is not the hijinks, but the strange, evocative moments in between: Susan on her beloved island, or Merlin being stalked by a stone cat in a stone garden.
With at least a couple of Susan’s problems solved, for the time being, it’s not entirely clear if there will be a third volume. But surely there are yet more cities with more mysterious bookshops to be explored.
The Sinister Booksellers of Bath is published by HarperTeen.
Molly Templeton lives and writes in Oregon, and spends as much time as possible in the woods. Sometimes she talks about books on Twitter.