RogerBW's Blog

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, Garth Nix 07 June 2021

2020 urban fantasy. Susan Arkshaw, brought up in the country by her slightly dippy mother, goes to London to start her art degree and try to find her father. Magic ensues.

This book's set in 1983, and an alternate 1983 at that; there's mention of PM Clementina Attlee, and The Professionals were all women. But apart from two members of a military helicopter crew being women this alternateness never seems to have any effect on the actual plot; and the period lets Nix drop in lots of period detail but again never really influences much.

It's all right; Nix is a reasonably competent writer, and there aren't horrible solecisms or moments when one has to check back to work out just what's going on. But it's also all very familiar; here's the bit where we namecheck the author's favourite fantasy books (stolen from Diana Wynne Jones and Jo Walton), here's the real world linked to mythic flavour done so well by DWJ and Neil Gaiman… if you haven't read those books you may enjoy this more, because it doesn't seem to add anything to what they already did, instead rearranging those familiar elements into a slightly different configuration.

And all right I got irked when someone had 'a vintage leather cricket bag adorned with the cryptic gold monogram "PDBW"'. That's an un-earned in-joke: if you haven't read Sayers you have no idea what it's a reference to and it's just padding. (And Wimsey, having taste, would not have owned such an article anyway.) My wife was reading some fanfic the other day in which a student at Magdalen gets away with turning up at a tutorial smelling of aviation fuel because his professor, having a particularly horrible pipe, can't detect it; that works as a small funny bit on its own, and if you also happen to know that this is a reference to C. S. Lewis that's an extra level of amusement to get from it.

And a piece of poetry that's meant to be significant and climactic… not only lacks scansion, not only contains horrible clanging internal rhymes, but can't even keep to its own AABB rhyme scheme.

To be fair many good writers have a few moments of failure like this, but they also have really good moments to counter them, moments when one says "ah, so that's what that was all about" or "oh, I like the way those things came together", and this story is all so clear and transparent and straightforward that there's never room for anything like that. Some people are not quite what they appear to be but there's never any doubt about their affiliations with Team Good versus Team Evil.

Yes, all right, I did like the characterisation of Susan: she's calm and collected and prone not to flap even when impossible things start to happen, even as she discovers that she may actually be one of those impossible things.

If you have read all the first-rate stuff and want more, then go for it. But if you haven't, my goodness, read the better stuff first. And then read Fire and Hemlock again.

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