After having read several positive reviews of Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore I picked it up at the library. In this case the reviews were correct. Robin Sloan has written a gem of a book. It defies any normal categorization, touching on the fantasy genres as well as being a riveting example of the conflict between new, old, and ancient technologies.
The books narrator is Clay, a twenty something who works the night shift in a very odd San Francisco bookstore. As we learn about the bookstore and it’s clientele we see that the few books out front that people might want to buy are just a front for a collection of coded books in the back. These books are not sold but are loaned out to certain customers. This odd collection of customers appear at the store at odd times of the day hence the need for the store to be open twenty four hours a day.
The book takes off as we begin to meet Clay’s circle of friends outside of the store. His roommate and friend Matt who works in set design and, most importantly his long time friend from grade school, Neel. Neel and Clay were nerds together in junior high and high school but since then their paths have diverged, Neel is now tech rich with a company that makes breasts more real life in computer programs. Really! This has made him rich. It is true, the revenge of the nerds is coming to the world in all of our towns soon.
One evening working alone in the store, customer’s are usually counted on one hand during a whole shift, Clay decides to investigate the books in the back of the store. Books that Clay has been told never to open, never to peruse, only to hand out to the list of approved borrowers.
From there the book takes us down the rabbit hole. We learn about ancient codes and eternal life theories. We visit the vast underground complexes of both a bibliophile cult in New York City and the above-ground, miles long, storage facility of overstocked and not on exhibit museum pieces in the Nevada desert.
Along the way Clay’s relationship with his new girlfriend Kat, a wholly dedicated employee of the Google empire develops, though certainly not in a straight line, as his dedication to his employer, Mr. Penumbra, grows with each chapter.
Mr. Penumbra is himself a reminder of the fellowship that this strange bookstore is a front for. With knowledge of the history of the society and a deep seeded belief in the history of the organization he himself gives the book a sense of the mystical.
This is a wonderful little book. I found, as I read it, that it became the most important thing I was reading. I wanted to get to the end, I wanted to know if the code was real. Combining Google magic and the magic of those who created some of the first books six centuries ago with neither suffering for it this book, while hard to classify, will please both those from the Harry Potter school of magic and wizards and those that consider themselves, like me, to be a bit of the Luddite.
A Luddite with a blog that is, I guess we all have our contradictions.
Interestingly about this book, I think it translates well to young readers. My daughter at 13, a huge reader like me, is currently reading Fahrenheit 451, for a class project. I think that this book might be a nice follow up. Both books, in very different ways demonstrate the power of the written word. Not much is more important than that.
I highly recommend this book.