Wasn’t this fun! Susan Arkshaw has grown up in a rural corner of southwestern England, with an absent father and a very absent-minded artist mother. Two minutes before The Left-Handed Booksellers of London opens — on May 1, 1983 — Susan turns 18. She’s also just had one of her recurring dreams, full of giant ravens and lizard things that ought to be the stuff of nightmares but leave her feeling strangely comforted. Susan has finished school and has a place at an art college waiting for her in London at the end of the summer. She uses birthday breakfast to tell her mum that she’s decided to go to London early, find some work and look for her dad. Her mum reacts with remarkable equanimity, telling her to be careful and insisting on receiving postcards with Trafalgar Square, and not quite finishing sentences about a particular “he.”
Susan waited for Jassmine to continue, but her mother’s voice trailed off and she was staring at the wall, whatever thought had been about to emerge lost somewhere along the way.
“I will, Mum.”
“And I know you will be careful. Eighteen! Happy birthday, my darling. Now, I must get back to my painting before that cloud comes over and ruins the light. Presents later, okay? After second breakfast.”
“Presents later. Don’t miss the light!”
“No, no. You too, darling girl. Even more so for you. Be sure to stay in the light. That’s what he would have wanted.”
“Mum! Who’s ‘he’ … come back … oh, never mins. …” (pp. xiii–xiv)
It’s good advice, and no mistake. The next time readers see Susan, less than a page and a half have elapsed before she’s seen a man crumble to dust after being pricked on the nose with a silver hatpin. Within another page and a half, she turns around to see “a bug the size of a small horse burst into the room and the young man stepped past her and fired three times boom! boom! boom! into the creature’s thorax, sending spurts of black blood and fragments of chitin across the white Aubusson carpet and still it kept coming, its multi-segmented back legs scrabbling and its hooked forelimbs snapping, almost reaching the man’s legs until he fired again, three more shots, and the huge, ugly bug flipped over onto its back and spun about in frenzied death throes.” (p. 4)
The young man — “slight … with long fair hair, wearing a pre-owned mustard-colored three-piece suit with widely flared trousers and faux alligator-hide boots with two-inch Cuban heels” (p. 1) — explains to Susan the importance of leaving the scene quickly. “Because we’ll both be dead if we stay.” (p. 5) Given the recent goings-on, Susan agrees and follows him out the upper-story window.
The young man is Merlin (“Like Merlin the magician?” “Like Merlin the wizard.” p. 5), one of the titular booksellers. He promises Susan an explanation of what he did to Uncle Frank (“He’s not your uncle.” “Well, no, but …” p. 3) as soon as they’re not in imminent danger. That takes longer than one might think. Or not, given the breakneck pace of the first few pages.
Actually, most of the initial explanations come while they are still in great danger but have found temporary protection and respite on an ancient path.
“That fog,” she whispered. “I think it followed us.”
“Yes,” said Merlin. “But it can’t come onto the path.”
“It’s an old thing, and obeys old custom,” said Merlin. (p. 9)
That’s a key explanation, although it’s not immediately apparent to Susan. The safe old path, unfortunately, only coincides with the modern path for a short way, so Merlin and Susan have to walk that distance back and forth until the following fog dissipates, or until the dawn, lest things in the fog vent ancient fury on trespassing humans. Susan and Merlin use the opportunity to answer each other’s questions. Merlin wants to know what Susan was doing at “Uncle” Frank’s house. Susan wants to know, well, everything.
“[T]his isn’t one of those situations where if I know too much you have to kill me, is it?”
“You already know too much,” said Merlin. “But you’re not at risk from me. Or mine. Though I’m afraid your life might never be the same.” (p. 12)
After that reassuring answer, the conversation continues and gets closer to the heart of the matter.
“So,” said Susan. “Are you actually a wizard?”
“Well, I’m mainly a bookseller.”
“Really. A bookseller. I handle incoming deliveries for the most part, unpacking, shelving. Not a lot of the actual selling. The right-handed mostly do that.”
“It’s a family business, of sorts. Perhaps clan would be a better word. We’re either right-handed or left-handed. Though it can change. ‘One for the books, one for the hooks,’ as we like to say.”
He held up his gloved left hand, stark in the moonlight.
“As you can see, I am of the left-handed moiety.”
“But what does that mean? What’s the hook business?”
“It’s obscure, to be honest. I mean, we’ve never really used hooks. Swords, daggers, hatpins … but the left-handed St. Jacques—”
“San Jark. The family name. French. Though we’re not French and it’s not really our name, it’s something pinned on us by the first Elizabeth; she was confused, and it of stuck. Anyway, we left types do most of the active stuff, running about, fighting, and so on. …” (pp. 15–16)
Merlin has a tendency to veer away from from key information, using his charming manner to steer conversation into things like family history. Finally Susan asks him point-blank what is going on.
“Well, there is another world beneath the everyday human one, and under certain conditions or at particular times, the Old World comes to the top, or elements of it become the primary world, as it were. And there are … environments and creatures or individuals who exist on multiple levels at the same time, either due to their nature, or because of some–I guess you’d all it magical—intervention. We booksellers fall in the latter category, both left- and right-handed, and for various reasons we’ve ended up … policing, I suppose … the interaction between the various more mythic levels, collectively known as the Old World, and the New World—the prosaic human world—what you might fondly call ‘reality.'”
“But what does bookselling have to do with all this?”
“We have to make a living.”
“Most of the old mythic levels are sequestered and most Old World entities are bound, or the ones that aren’t behave themselves anyway. We rarely have to intervene. In between, we sell books.” (pp. 16–17)
And there we have it. What does Susan have to do with any of that? That’s Merlin’s most pressing question, but he has to wait much, much longer for an answer. Not least because he and Susan go directly from one danger to the next as the Old World behaves itself much less than it had in Merlin’s previous experience. Similarly, how was Susan able to surprise him during their initial encounter at “Uncle” Frank’s? Are all of the slings and arrows (some quite literal) that the two of them encounter aimed at Merlin?
Readers will not be surprised in the least that Susan is More Than She Seems, but the pace that Nix sets and the charm he deploys ensure that they will probably not mind at all that the story follows exactly the expected, indeed promised, structure. The juxtapositions continue, the danger increases, and both Susan and readers learn more about the booksellers’ world up through the very end, when All Becomes Clear. The Left-Handed Booksellers of London isn’t deep, but it’s well-crafted, vivid, exciting, occasionally hilarious, and just so, so much fun.