ARC received from publisher, Gollancz, in exchange for an honest review.
The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix
My rating: 4 of 5 stars.
Genre: Urban fantasy, historical fantasy, young adult
Published: 24th September 2020 by Gollancz (UK) and 22nd September 2020 Katherine Tegen Books (US)
The Left-Handed Booksellers of London was an enjoyable urban fantasy romp in an alternate 1980s-London which left me wanting more from this clever and fascinating world of magical secret service booksellers.
I had mixed experiences with Garth Nix’s books so far. While I enjoyed Sabriel and the following two books in the Old Kingdom series, I had a much less encouraging response to his last book, Angel Mage, which felt more like an attempt towards adult fantasy than his usual. Nonetheless, the title of this book was too tempting not to give him another try as I’m a real sucker for books about books and/or bookshops. Fortunately, I had a much better time reading this and wondered perhaps that Nix is just more suited to young adult writing.
I’m not typically a YA reader and choose these books very selectively, instead preferring middle grade fiction which I found to be more endearing and to contain less aggravating tropes. What I do like about a well-written YA is that it’s usually fun, fast-paced and easy to read as there will always be times for books that fit these criteria. This book was a great choice for me after finishing some heavy emotional reads. It definitely fit what I was looking for with the added fun factor of two of my favourite things – books and bookshops.
It was 1983 in an alternate London where a select bunch of booksellers operating two bookshops in the city – one on Charing Cross Road and one in Mayfair – were also magical secret agents that protect the New World against the mythical beings of the Old World. This gave me vibes of The Kingsman in an urban fantasy setting, and instead of a tailor shop we have bookshops. The left-handed booksellers are the physical fighters while the right-handed ones are more intellectual and wields magic. While I found the worldbuilding to be quite clever especially in part of the booksellers, the plot was fairly standard and predictable albeit adequately engaging to keep me entertained. Come to think of it, Nix always have had great worldbuilding ideas as evident in the Old Kingdom series (I’m still impressed with the originality and depth of its magic system), and even in Angel Mage although the latter wasn’t executed half as well in my opinion.
The story is somewhat a coming-of-age story for 18 years old Susan who went to London in search for her mysterious father whom she has never known. The story took off with lots of fantastical action right from the first chapter when she met Merlin St. Jacques, an attractive left-handed bookseller who killed her ‘uncle’ whom she was visiting to obtain information in her attempts to locate her father. Admittedly, Merlin’s good looks seemed tropish especially when Susan found herself attracted to him. Nonetheless, I didn’t find it particularly irksome in this case because I found Merlin to be quite a charming character without being a Gary Stu. I think I also fell in love with him a bit after he unintentionally killed an innocent and was so haunted by it that he needed to read a book to counterbalance that act of violence. Even though he also became interested in Susan, it was refreshingly not because of her looks or awesome abilities, but rather by her personality and ability to roll with the weird magical situations she was suddenly facing.
I loved that this book was inspired by Nix’s own visits to the United Kingdom, the first time coincidentally being in 1983, and his gratitude to booksellers which came across in his Acknowledgement. Of course, there were numerous references to books and several scenes in the literally magical bookshops, which obviously made me enjoy this title much more than if these were absent. What made it even more magical was the allusion to an urban fantasy London, which in my opinion is the book capital of the world. While the pacing slows down a bit during the bookshop scenes, I was too enchanted by these scenes to be bothered by it.
All in all, I was delighted by how much I enjoyed reading The Left-Handed Booksellers of London. If Nix continues writing in this world, I’ll pick it up the next one in a heartbeat.