Set in an alternate Eighties London, The Left-Handed Booksellers Of London follows the story of Susan Arkshaw, who is looking for the father she has never met. When she stumbles upon Merlin (or perhaps Merlin stumbles upon her…), she discovers a whole new world of magic and… booksellers.
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.
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…
We spoke to The Left-Handed Booksellers Of London author Garth Nix about the book’s fantastical creatures and whether we’ll be seeing more from Merlin, Vivian and Susan…
When did you first get the idea for The Left-Handed Booksellers Of London?
Unusually, I can pinpoint exactly when the first spark for this book burst into my head. I was on tour for my book Goldenhand, signing books in the Ocean Terminal Waterstones in Leith, Edinburgh. I noticed the bookseller who was helping was left-handed and I commented on this to him. He said: “We’re all left-handed here” and I said: “Oh, the left-handed booksellers of Leith, there’s a story there.” I kept thinking about it, made notes, started writing and several years later it all led to this book.
If any, what inspirations did you have when writing The Left-Handed Booksellers Of London?
There are a great many inspirations driving this book, more than I even know myself, I suspect. One of the things I wanted to do was to marry two kinds of books that I love: thrillers and fantasy. I wanted to get some of the sensibility of Sixties and Seventies thrillers by Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Hammond Innes and others; with the kind of fantasy where the mythical world underpins the contemporary world, and they occasionally mix, but it all feels very real, as is superbly done in the children’s fantasies by Susan Cooper and Alan Garner, among others.
Why did you decide to set the book in the Eighties?
This was almost an instinctive decision. I think it felt right to me because I first travelled to the UK in 1983, and though I have visited many times since, this was when I spent the longest time in London. I didn’t think of it at the time, but on a practical level, it is easier to write a thriller back before there were mobile phones or Google!
What is it about fantasy and magic that appeals to you as an author?
I love the possibilities of fantasy and magic. You do have to make it work, and that’s not always easy, but fantasy allows a larger palette for an author to use than strict reality.
Why did you decide to differentiate the Booksellers by their hands?
This came from the original notion. Once I had the title ‘the left-handed booksellers’ I needed to think about why this was important, and what it might mean to be right-handed instead. So it all came from the original spark of an idea.
Merlin is comfortable in both male and female clothes – why did you decide to include this element to the character?
I typically don’t know much about my characters when I begin a book, and I learn about them as I’m writing. Merlin is first described at the very beginning of the book, and it felt right to go into detail about his clothes, and Susan’s uncertainty about whether he was a man or a woman, and everything else just seemed to fit from there.
The book includes all manner of creatures – do you have a favourite, and what were your inspirations and thoughts behind them?
Some of the creatures, like the Shuck, are drawn from English folklore. Others, like the Kexa or hemlock cat, are made up but still also connect with existing myth and legend, in that case the Egyptian cat goddess Bast and beliefs about hemlock. Invented creatures always seem more real if they are connected to myth, legend, folklore or fairy tales. I don’t have a favourite, though. I like all my creatures!
The ending leaves it open for Merlin, Susan and Vivian to have more adventures – do you have plans to continue The Left-Handed Booksellers Of London as a series?
I do have notes for more stories in this world, including at least one more book. So I expect I will come back to the Booksellers in due course.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading some non-fiction, as I always do, at the moment Judith Herrin’s new history of Ravenna. But I’m also always reading fiction as well, and right now I’ve just finished Dead Lies Dreaming by Charlie Stross, which was great. I also like to re-read old favourites, and my most recent re-read was the wonderful The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley.
What’s next for you?
My next book, which all being well will be out around November 2021, is Terciel And Elinor, a prequel to my book Sabriel. It takes place some years before that book, and concerns Sabriel’s parents.
The Left-Handed Booksellers Of London by Garth Nix is out now.