Book: The Left-Handed Booksellers Of London
Author: Garth Nix
Narrator: Marisa Calin
BECHDEL TEST: Uncertain, didn’t keep track.
Content Warnings: Violence, loss of loved ones, gore, murder, kidnapping, mentions of drugs, death, brief mentions of blood drinking, guns
There are definitely some fantasy authors that it feels as if all fantasy fans talk about, and everyone seems to have read but me. Garth Nix is definitely one of those, and I don’t really have any reason for not having read any of his books yet (unlike Tolkien where Lord of The Rings has just never interested me). Still I came across The Left Handed Booksellers of London when I was wandering round Waterstones a couple of months ago, and the pretty cover plus intriguing description enticed me, so I decided to give it a try. Did it work out for me? Kind of. It was definitely a fun and quirky book and I really enjoyed Merlin as a character (Susan, less so). However the world-building was definitely very vague and underdeveloped, and in a rare turn for me, it was actually too fast-paced. It felt like the book needed a bit more time to slow down and breathe, and then it might have fulfilled on the potential of the concept a little more. Here is a short synopsis of the book:
In a slightly alternate London in 1983, Susan Arkshaw is looking for her father, a man she has never met. Crime boss Frank Thringley might be able to help her, but Susan doesn’t get time to ask Frank any questions before he is turned to dust by the prick of a silver hatpin in the hands of the outrageously attractive Merlin.
Merlin is a young left-handed bookseller (one of the fighting ones), who with the right-handed booksellers (the intellectual ones), are an extended family of magical beings who police the mythic and legendary Old World when it intrudes on the modern world, in addition to running several bookshops.
Susan’s search for her father begins with her mother’s possibly misremembered or misspelt surnames, a reading room ticket, and a silver cigarette case engraved with something that might be a coat of arms.
Merlin has a quest of his own, to find the Old World entity who used ordinary criminals to kill his mother. As he and his sister, the right-handed bookseller Vivien, tread in the path of a botched or covered-up police investigation from years past, they find this quest strangely overlaps with Susan’s. Who or what was her father? Susan, Merlin, and Vivien must find out, as the Old World erupts dangerously into the New.
So as I mentioned at the top of the review, I loved the concept for this book. An alternate (though really not by much, I was expecting a few more differences from the actual 1980s) 1980s London with magical booksellers who protect the modern world from the world of ancient beings and mythical creatures that threaten to intrude on it. I love books where the magic lies just beneath the surface of the real world, so that worked really well for me. I also loved the idea of booksellers being the guardians against all these mythical creatures.
However, despite my love of the idea behind the world, the world-building itself definitely disappointed me. It was very vague and hand-wavy, we don’t get much explanation on what the booksellers actually do, the differences between the left and right handed booksellers (other than that the left are the fighters and the right are the thinkers) or much information about Susan’s powers. Basically whenever any kind of question comes up in the book, it’s waved away by one or more of the characters as not important, and as a reader, I’m like “Wait but I want to know!”. I am a bit of a world-building nerd, so I like to know more than maybe some other people do, but I feel like we at least need to get the basics and every opportunity for learning a little more about the world Nix was trying to create in this book seemed to be glossed over. This meant I found myself fairly confused throughout much of the book, this may have been the intention, so the readers were as confused as Susan, but it doesn’t really enhance the reading experience when you don’t understand what’s going on!
I also wasn’t that keen on Susan as the main character, she was kind of bland to me. She’s definitely a passive protagonist, she does nothing to push the story forward, everything just kind of happens around her, which isn’t really what you want in a fantasy novel. Also no one should be that accepting of all this weird stuff happening to them, I mean she’s attacked almost the instant she arrives in London and she seems to take it all really well, and just go along with everything that Merlin drags her into. I would definitely not be as calm as she was if the things that happen to her in this book happened to me!
Like in Little Fires Everywhere, this book is told in omniscient third person POV, and I had the same problems here as I did there, it felt like I was being kept at a distance from the characters, I think if the book had been told from Susan’s POV, we would have got to see more of her personality so she wouldn’t have seemed quite so bland.
I did however really enjoy Merlin, he was funny, charming & kind of silly and I just found him a lot more fun to read about than Susan. He also appears to potentially be gender fluid, though the book doesn’t use any specific labels, he wears women’s clothing and expresses a desire to shapeshift into a female body (as his family are shapeshifters) which suggests he doesn’t feel he fits into a binary gender identity. I would have maybe liked this to be explored a bit more, but I did appreciate that it was very casually included in the story.
We also have a bit of romance between Susan and Merlin, which I wasn’t a massive fan of. Once again, it seemed like an editor had decided to shoehorn in it because it feels like a YA/Adult crossover and they wanted something to appeal to younger readers. I really wish this would stop being a thing because I’m so tired of reading about couples with no chemistry that are just put together because editors think that readers are expecting a romance, and don’t care if it’s good or not!
I actually felt like it should have been longer, which is rare for me! The audio was only a little over 11 hours, and it felt like it was somewhat short for a fantasy book? Especially one as complex as this one with all the different mythologies and folklore and the world of the booksellers, I think if it had been a bit longer, then it would have allowed Nix to explore all the ideas he wanted to explore properly. There’s also too much action (again rare for me to say as I usually love action sequences. It felt like Nix was throwing us from one action sequence to the next, without giving any time for the book to slow down and allow the characters and story to breathe a little! I think had the book been a little longer, some of these issues I had would have been resolved.
Also while I enjoyed the quirkiness of the book and all the different supernatural creatures, and mythologies, it did feel like it almost lacked focus in this regard? I think it would have been better if Nix had decided to ground the book in one particular mythology, and developed that more rather than throwing so many ideas at it that the reader isn’t sure where to turn.
I also didn’t get a lot of the 80s references, I understood some (mostly the political ones) but a lot of the pop culture references went right over my head, since 1983 was 13 years before I was even born!
I had a couple of quibbles with the writing. Firstly the descriptions were a little too in depth for me, I really don’t need to know every single item in a room, and every detail down the wall colour, description like that is totally lost on me because I don’t picture things in my head. I would have much preferred to have more sparse description and more in-depth detail on things like character emotions. There are also quite a few Americanisms in the writing which I would have taken out as they didn’t fit with the UK setting. The writing was also quite clunky and relied heavily on exposition, which I didn’t enjoy.
On a more positive front, the dialogue was quite witty, especially Merlin’s which I appreciated, as I’m a big dialogue person, so that worked well for me.
I wasn’t a massive fan of the narrator either, she was fine for the prose parts, but some of her accents on the dialogue were truly horrendous.
I would have liked to have spent more time in the actual bookshops, considering that “Booksellers” is in the title, we are only very briefly in the bookshops which I thought was a shame!
In general I think the characters needed to be developed more, but there was one particular character I’d have liked to have learn more about, and that was Susan’s mother. She sounded like she’s had a very colourful life and I would have just loved to learn more about her (honestly, it definitely seems like Nix could do a prequel about Susan’s mother in the 60s at some point). The fact that the characters were so thinly developed made it hard to care when people died as well, as I didn’t really feel an emotional connection to them.
I’m not usually one to bother about basic life logistics in fantasy books, like when characters eat, sleep, go to the toilet etc, but I SWEAR SUSAN NEVER EATS and it really bugged me because all I could think about was how she never ate and how she could be functioning when her last meal was several days ago! I mean I know it’s physically possible to go without food for a couple of weeks, but I get so crabby when I’m hungry that I can’t imagine Susan would function that well on such little food!
The villain was kind of predictable, they were flagged from the very beginning as someone shady, so I wasn’t massively surprised by that reveal.
The ending was a little too neat for me, everything seemed to be wrapped up in a happily ever after but it didn’t feel earned. Though it seems to be intended as a standalone, I’d like there to be a sequel as it’s a fun world that Nix has created, and I’d like to see the world and characters developed more in any potential sequel.
Overall I generally enjoyed this book, despite being fairly confused through a lot of it! I think Nix created a fun and unique world and I just wish that it had been developed more. I would definitely read more from this world in the future if he ever decided to do any sequels.
My Rating: 3/5
My next review will be of The Bear and The Nightingale, my first October audiobook, so I’m now only one month behind in my reviews, yay! I’m off all this week, and the beginning part of next week, so I’m hoping to get a bit more caught up with them. I still have four reviews to do though, as I finished A Psalm of Storms and Silence last week, and it’s soon going to be five as I reckon I will finish I Am Malala this week. I really need to slow down on the audio clearly! I still think I’m going to be on track to finish all my reviews by the end of the year though which is good. Hopefully next year, I will turn over a new leaf and actually finish my reviews in the same month as I finish the book!