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The Sinister Booksellers of Bath cover

The Sinister Booksellers of Bath by Garth Nix

(Gollancz, 2023)

Reviewed by Susan Peak

If you already read and like Garth Nix’s books, then you will like The Sinister Booksellers of Bath and its predecessor, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London. If you haven’t read his books, then this duology (as it is at present) is a good introduction to his writing.

It very much is a duology, too—there is background material in the first book that’s necessary to understanding both the booksellers and the kind of dangers they deal with that isn’t repeated in this second book. And, while The Left-Handed Booksellers of London is self-contained, a key plotline and character relationships are continued into this book—so I am taking care to avoid spoilers for either book.

The books are set in an alternative 1983–1984. This seems to relate to Nix’s first visit to England at about that time; it is well handled with only one or two minor solecisms (a ‘charger’ is referred to, clearly electronic but its purpose not clear). The effect is quite nostalgic for an older reader, though, and the use of ‘alternative’ mean that the time can be evoked rather than precisely presented. It also enables Nix to make women stronger characters in that, in The Left-Handed Booksellers of London we learn of the politician Clementine Atlee, and here we have senior police officers who are women.

Garth Nix’s books, including these, are fast paced with a great deal happening early on. The pace is a little less fast in The Sinister Booksellers of Bath, but it is still eventful and very engagingly written. It’s the kind of book that invites reading at one sitting. Background information is handled well, being fed as needed through various characters (and Nix avoids the trap of telling rather than showing). Much of the background is presented in the first book, with the booksellers explaining to Susan what they are, and about their world (which includes actually selling books as well as supernatural adventures). As Susan is more of a part of it in The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, there is less explanation in the second book.

As with the first book, two main plotlines are interwoven: the booksellers are dealing with a magical/supernatural threat, and Susan is finding out more about her own background and what she is to do with it. The threat to the booksellers is less direct here, more targeted on Susan herself, but it is of concern to them as well. And to the police—they are aware of the booksellers and of the existence of strange threats, and handling these is a difficult task for them.

In both books we have a range of supernatural creatures—a guardian water spirit in The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, for example, and underground Knockers in The Sinister Booksellers of Bath—but the key characters are the Ancient Sovereigns. These are very powerful, near-godlike, beings—they don’t usually interact with humans but when they do, they are formidable opponents. They can easily bend humans to their will; it’s only the awareness and skills of the booksellers which enable them to tackle these beings, and even then, they have to act together. In The Sinister Booksellers of Bath, the Ancient Sovereign is pursuing Susan Arkshaw, and has a personal reason for doing so; as part of this, Merlin, who is Susan’s bookseller boyfriend, is initially sucked into a pocket reality from which Susan has to rescue him. Through this, a series of murders is revealed, and the plot that is targeting Susan. But it’s a plot that Susan cannot deal with on her own—she needs the booksellers—and she also has the task of resolving her personal situation and future direction. This, while not directly part of the main plotline, is an interesting subplot in itself, especially as Susan is quite young (18 at the start of the first book). As a result, the ending of the second book is a little ambiguous—Susan seems to have got what she wanted, but has she entirely got that? I would be happy to read more.

Review from BSFA Review 21 - Download your copy here.


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