In One Word

In One Word, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix is…

left handed booksellers

  • First published in 2020 by Katherine Tegan Books
  • Format: Paperback – Published in 2020 by Gollancz
  • Reading Time: 22 intriguing days


  • Decided on this one for the Popsugar Reading Challenge prompt, ‘a book set in the 1980s’, because I loved re-reading The Old Kingdom trilogy last year and I’m always willing to buy Garth Nix books. It’s 1983 and Susan Arkshaw is looking for her father with nothing but what clues her scatter-brained mother gave her: a set of misremembered surnames and a silver cigarette case. She thinks a friend of the family, Frank Thringley, might provide a good lead but, before she can ask him anything, a left-handed Bookseller named Merlin turns Frank to dust with the prick of a silver pin. Merlin and the other Booksellers (both left-handed and right-handed) work to police the Old World of magic and monsters and prevent it from encroaching on the modern world. Merlin is looking for answers too – he wants to know who is responsible for his mother’s murder. He knows something from the Old World did it and, as he and his sister search, they find that answers to their mystery may be connected with Susan’s mystery too and may be reason the Old World seems more active in the modern world than usual.
  • I can’t help but be reminded of another fictional Susan. Like Susan Sto Helit from the Discworld series, Susan Arkshaw is no-nonsense, takes impossible things in stride and is clearly much more supernatural than anyone suspects. She makes a great main character in that respect. Even though she’s in way over her head, she can keep her head long enough to swim to the surface and try to figure out what to do next. That said, she doesn’t really power the story forward for the most of it. She’s more of an every-person who’s been swept along for the ride but stick with her. She figures out how things work and what she can do to turn events in her favour in the last third.
  • Set in a slightly alternative 1983 where Thatcher was not the first female Prime Minister but the IRA is still the most feared terrorist group. There are pop culture references but not too many and nothing that will confuse a reader who isn’t familiar with 80s culture or history. Besides, I think any kind of inaccuracy is deliberate on the author’s part. That said, I rather appreciated one scene that showed how different British newspapers covered the same events. The tone of those headlines are very accurate. It’s not just London, though. The book also takes the reader to other, more wild landmarks and introduces the reader to traditional British foods American readers might be familiar with. If you need to do a google search of ‘stargazy pie’, please proceed with caution.
  • Perhaps, it might be more appropriate to use they/them pronouns with Merlin as he is able to switch genders at will but he uses he/him pronouns so I’m sticking with that. I’ve seen readers compare him to Howl from Howl’s Moving Castle and he’s certainly as vain and flamboyant. He is, however, extremely knowledgeable and competent. He’s someone you would want to keep around you to keep monsters away and to find out what outfit he’s going to pick next. I loved his POV scenes. Vivian is a decent character too but she is somewhat overshadowed by her brother. It’s a good thing Merlin is so memorable because the story is somewhat overloaded with interesting characters. I really could have done with a list of names at the front like Gideon the Ninth so I could keep track of the whole extended family of Booksellers.
  • Opting for a light-hearted tone that’s similar to a Neil Gaiman novel. The world and the characters are all somewhat eccentric and there’s lots of British humour to balance out the horrors. The story is not only told from Susan’s POV but Merlin’s, Vivian’s and, sometimes, a few one-off POVs. I think this was a good choice as it expanded the world more than it would have otherwise and it was always clear who the story was following.
  • Rather obligatory romance. It didn’t get in the way of the story but I felt it could have easily been edited out.
  • The Old World included interesting takes on the old monsters but is kept deliberately vague. That was to the book’s benefit. The reader gets the feeling that the Old World has existed in the same way it always has for centuries and the rules are simple but ironclad. The trouble is that it’s not always obvious what those rules are. I’ve seen it compared to Neverwhere and there are certainly some similar elements but this book is much more rooted in the real world, opting to straddle both rather than spend most of the time in the Old World.
  • Incredibly intricate world building on the Booksellers. Not only do they have a very extended family network but they also have their own private school (only mentioned and never visited within the book, unfortunately), secret agents everywhere, a very unique ghost in the basement and, of course, well-to-do bookshops. They also have rather eccentric habits and, if they get too stressed, some of them have to drop everything to write poems in order to calm down. There’s a lot to like about them and I’m hoping for more books in this world on that basis.
  • Now, the only little nitpick I have is with the pacing. The book went at a rather measured pace with a lot of meetings interspersed with British humour to keep me going for the first two thirds. The pace was so measured that I felt sure I had to give this four stars even though I liked the world building so much. Thankfully, it spend up nicely in the last third and ended with a very nice climax.
  • Great story with a climax that made up for the slower parts. It’s definitely one of the most British fantasy stories I’ve read that wasn’t written by a British author. I heard this is the first in the series and this is definitely a good start. It sets up a fascinating world with endearing characters and gives us a story that can stand up by itself while also leaving readers hungry for more. This is definitely one to try if you’re a big fantasy (and book) fan.

Goodreads Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Did you agree with my rating? Can you think of a better word to describe it? Please let me know with a like, share or comment.

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