Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 4.5
Genre: Urban fantasy
What did you like about the book? Garth Nix can write up a storm and here he does just that. Everything in this urban fantasy is polished to a high sheen. Art student Susan Arkshaw has just turned 18 and is leaving her slightly dotty, hippy-ish mom to try her luck in London. But she’s instantly targeted by the forces of old magic and rescued by the dashing and slightly mad Merlin St-Jacques, a left-handed bookseller. She learns that she’s the offspring of one of the Ancient Ones, and Merlin and his sister Vivien (a right-handed bookseller) become her guardians as they protect the city, Susan, and all its unsuspecting mortals, battling undead Cauldron-born as they search for Susan’s dad. Pacing, setting, description and dialogue all flow effortlessly and makes you feel like someone truly gifted is in the driver’s seat. Nix creates a Wonderland-style secret police force complete with magical weapons, cryptic beings, and lots of action. For those of us who love high fantasy, it’s a treat to catch all of Nix’s literary allusions to Arthur Ransome (Swallows and Amazons), Lloyd Alexander (The Chronicles of Prydain), C.S. Lewis (all of Narnia) and of course, Arthurian legend. Although the three main characters are White, the booksellers are a diverse lot. Merlin presents as nonbinary and Susan is attracted to him, despite his unconventional wardrobe choices. Although the book is a self-contained adventure, Nix has put so much effort into designing this alternate history London (the book is set in the mid-1980s) that it seems possible there might be a follow-up.
Anything you didn’t like about it? The main drawback for me was Susan’s lack of depth. She’s a half-human/half-mythical being but still manages to be relatively uninteresting, especially compared to the wise-cracking siblings. All we can really say is that she looks good in a borrowed boiler suit, wears Doc Martens, and seems unphased by the carryings on around her. Possibly she’ll be better fleshed out in future installments?
To whom would you recommend this book? Teens or adults looking for urban fantasy. Booksellers would be a great stepping stone to Jasper Fforde’s books. It would also be a good match for those who enjoyed the adventure and camaraderie of Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co. series. Although there’s a lot of chopping up of the undead and some gruesome violence, it’s pretty tame compared to urban fantasy on television, so I’d say grades 8 and up.
Who should buy this book? High school and public libraries.
Where would you shelve it? YA, in fantasy if you genre-fy.
Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? If you love urban fantasy, go for it!
Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA
Date of review: March 14, 2021