Published by Allen & Unwin
Published on 22 September 2020
Genres: 20th Century, Fantasy & Magic, Historical, Young Adult
Format: ARC, Paperback
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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). With the right-handed booksellers (the intellectual ones), he belongs to 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 misspelled 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, a right-handed bookseller named Vivien, tread in the path of a botched or covered-up police investigation from years past, they find their 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.
I received a copy of this book from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
I originally received this as an ARC that I was unable to read in 2020 due to nearly dying (my bad!). So this review is super late, however I did purchase my own physical copy.
I loved how urban myths and old wives tales were woven so seamlessly into this alternate 1980s London. The worldbuilding really made it feel like there was this whole entire world that completely absorbed the booksellers, and that our main character Susan was slowly being exposed to, and that every other person (mundane, or muggle, whatever you might want to call them) went around utterly oblivious and blind to the Old World. The May Fair goblins on Mayfair I particularly liked.
The romp is fun stuff, with an overarching mystery that Susan and her new friends feel compelled to resolve. The adventure takes them across London and several landmarks, and the second half reads more like a road trip as our heroes leave London to confront their destinies. I don’t know enough about local myths and tales to determine what is borrowed, a homage, or completely original, but it’s all seamlessly entwined within the tale to produce a rollicking fun adventure. Everything appears to be resolved at the end of the book, making it a strong stand-alone novel.
Apart from the story Nix has told of his inspiration for this book – being that he attended a book signing where a staff member informed him that “we’re all left-handed here” – I’m not quite sure of the reason for titling this specifically the ‘Left Handed’ booksellers, when the book is specifically about someone who is not a bookseller, and she is accompanied by both a left-handed bookseller and a right-handed bookseller. It seems very odd, and I would have liked Merlin, our resident gender-fluid left-handed bookseller to have played a bigger role.
I did however enjoy how both Merlin and his right-handed and somewhat more powerfully magically gifted sister Vivien quickly turned into powerful allies and friends to Susan, a seemingly ordinary girl looking for the father she never knew in London.
Nix has this wonderful way of writing with grace and grit and a kind of dreaminess that seems timeless. However I feel that the arm’s-length third person omniscience, although contributing this excellent narrative style, kept me from getting emotionally invested.
I thoroughly recommend this to anyone who has already read and loved Nix’s previous work, especially Angel Mage and the Old Kingdom series: Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen, Clariel, and Goldenhand. For those unfamiliar with him, they may find the narrative style a bit unconventional in its traditional, almost CS Lewis style approach, though it does inject a fair bit more humour. I personally find the style to be timeless, but I suspect it won’t be for everyone’s taste.