Review posted October 1, 2020.
Katherine Tegen Books (HarperCollins), 2020. 393 pages.
Review written September 29, 2020, from my own copy, ordered via amazon.com
2020 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#6 Teen Speculative Fiction
I think the title of this book is utterly delightful. The caption on the cover: “Authorized to kill… and sell books” only makes it better. When I heard this was coming out and saw it was by one of my favorite authors, Garth Nix, I preordered a copy. Then I forgot it was coming, and was happily in between books when it arrived at my doorstep. I got to indulge myself and finish it on the weekend, discovering a very fun story filled with imaginative details, lots of danger, and satisfying challenges.
The story is set in an alternate London in 1983. Susan Arkshaw turned 18 on May Day, and she has come to London to settle in before starting art school. She hopes to find out who her father was while she is in London – her mother has always been vague about that, but has given Susan a few clues.
She begins her adventure thinking she’ll stay with “Uncle Frank,” who sends her mom Christmas cards, but not long after she gets to Uncle Frank’s place and decides she doesn’t want to stay, Frank gets disintegrated with a silver pin by a handsome young man wearing a glove on his left hand. As Susan shouts about calling the police, a giant louse bursts into the room, and the young man kills that as well. They make hasty introductions, and his name is Merlin, but then she asks him what’s going on:
“Can’t explain here,” said Merlin, who had gone to the window and was lifting the sash.
“Why not?” asked Susan.
“Because we’ll both be dead if we stay. Come on.”
He went out through the window.
Susan looked at the phone, and thought about calling the police. But after a single second more of careful but lightning-fast thought, she followed him.
That night, a black and thick fog comes after them, inhabited by a Shuck, which gives off an intense and foul smell. They must walk an ancient path back and forth until sunrise to stay safe. And even then get arrows fired at them by an otherworldly creature.
Susan gets housed in a special safe house, but attacks keep happening. It seems to have something to do with whomever her father is. And the left-handed booksellers of London know how to deal with the ancient forces. Or at least she hopes they do.
Merlin takes a special interest in Susan’s case, along with his sister Vivien, who is a right-handed bookseller and has different skills. Of course, following up with Susan leads to more and more danger for all of them.
It all adds up to an otherworldly adventure, trying to find out what they need to do to survive ancient forces unleashed against them. With the banter between characters, the book manages to be a fun and light-hearted read rather than dark and scary.
As Susan finds out about the Other World, she recognizes some things, leading to this favorite bit of mine:
"Children's writers," said Merlin. "Dangerous bunch. They cause us a lot of trouble."
"How?" asked Susan.
"They don't do it on purpose," said Merlin. He opened the door. "But quite often they discover the key to raise some ancient myth, or release something that should have stayed imprisoned, and they share that knowledge via their writing. Stories aren't always merely stories, you know. Come on."