Magic in London via the booksellers of the capital

Garth Nix has written a number of fantasy series, mostly aimed at young adults but definitely enjoyable enough for the older reader. I have read a few of these and thought that they were good enough but none of them engaged me the way that The Left-handed Booksellers of London did.

This fantasy novel is set in London in the early 1980s although it is not quite the London that we know with some slight changes in history. Mostly, however, the details are very accurate and the references to the popular culture at the time were great fun to me as someone who remembers the time very well. In additional to a few changes in history the London that the author writes about here has also the addition of magic in many forms which is kept in check by families who also sell books. The right-handed booksellers are the intellectuals among the families and they study magic and know about the different magical creatures in Britain. The left-handed booksellers are those who take action to deal with magical threats. There are also even-handed booksellers who combine both skill sets.

Susan actually lives in the country with a mother who is vague and definitely not forthcoming about the identity of Susan’s father. On reaching eighteen she goes to London to study and also to follow up a series of clues to the identity of her father that she has accumulated over the years. The first person she contacts, however, turns out not to be what she thought he was and as she tries to extricate herself from a sticky situation she is rescued by Merlin who has his own reasons for becoming involved. Merlin is a left-handed bookseller and he introduces Susan to his family, including his right-handed twin sister, as they try to dodge the forces ranged against them and find out the identity of Susan’s father and who killed Merlin’s mother.

This is a book filled with quirky characters and clever ideas. Susan, and thus the reader, is introduced to a series of magical creatures and the ways that they can be dealt with. There are also a lot of references to actual books in the text which is entertaining as the booksellers reference titles which say too much about magic.

There are many clever ideas in this book and the author throws these at the reader in quick succession. You are prevented from feeling overwhelmed by this by the fact that Susan is a very sensible young woman who takes a lot of it in her stride. One day there is a blog to be written about sensible Susans in literature – think Swallows and Amazons, The Weirdstone of Brisingaman, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Hogfather to name but a few. Where Susan is sensible Merlin is flippant, extravagant, whimsical, vain and delightful – the contrast between the two is great fun.

Whereas I mostly admired rather than liked the previous books I have read by Garth Nix I actually loved this story and found myself rather unhappy when I realised that this story was finished and the sequel has not yet been published. I never felt that this was a book aimed at a younger reader and the author certainly includes adult themes such as death and betrayal. If you like fantasy novels rooted in the real world or with a whimsical slant you should enjoy this story.

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