Review

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

by Robin Sloan

For Clay Jannon, it all started with a curiously worded question: “What do you seek in these shelves?” Actually, it really started before that, when Clay lost his job and became increasingly desperate to find another one. He saw the “Help Wanted” sign in the window of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Penumbra himself greeted Clay with that oddly-phrased inquiry.

Clay Jannon lands himself the job and now works the night shift at the San Francisco bookstore, a place with strange rules and even stranger customers. For one thing, there are very few patrons and most usually check books out rather than purchase them. So what’s going on here? With so little to do, Clay’s imagination runs to wild conclusions and he begins a quest to figure it out.

"I haven’t had this much fun reading a book since the first Harry Potter was released. It’s a literary adventure full of imaginary companies, websites, books, authors and games interwoven with real ones."

Clay has an eccentric but indispensable group of helpers. Most intriguing, at least to him, is Kat Potente, one of Google’s brilliant young stars. Clay falls for more than just her brain, though. And he also has his childhood buddy Neel Shah, who he wouldn’t have met were it not for Rockets & Warlords, a role-playing game. Neel now heads a company worth beaucoup bucks. It’s always good to have a friend like that.

Within his first month at the store, Clay solves one big puzzle --- in record time --- but that simply spurs him to uncover the whole truth about Penumbra’s real purpose. With Kat aiding and abetting, Clay has nearly all of Google’s resources at his service. It’s always good to have a friend like that too.

Their discoveries lead them to New York City, where Clay gets more involved with a fellowship called the Unbroken Spine, an underground book society with very old-fashioned ideas and rituals. Of course, he enlists the aid of Kat and Neel, explaining that, as in Rockets & Warlords, every quest requires a warrior, a wizard and a rogue. Naturally, Clay is the rogue. They feel a bit like spies rather than warlords, and their clandestine chase totally draws them in. They are beginning to feel that Mr. Penumbra is just a small part of a much larger organization. But what is it?

I haven’t had this much fun reading a book since the first Harry Potter was released. It’s a literary adventure full of imaginary companies, websites, books, authors and games interwoven with real ones. Clay Jannon is a delightfully naïve character with a clever and refreshing wit. Yet his mind works well in the abstract. He thinks of things that never even crossed my mind.

I found myself wanting to run to Google to look up URLs and titles, hoping they weren’t one of the fictional ones. This brings me to the role Google plays in MR. PENUMBRA’S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE. Without Google, Clay, Kat, Neel and Penumbra would still be fumbling around, trying to solve the world of mysteries.

It’s an old tech read with new tech ideas. You can download it to your Kindle, but that would make it a far different experience from turning paper pages. Every book enthusiast will be thrilled by the concept of a secret club with members working for centuries to decode a tome that may hold the key to immortality. And the code breaker may come from this new world of computer geeks and nerds who might prove there is, indeed, a way for us all to co-exist.

Reviewed by Kate Ayers on October 26, 2012

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
by Robin Sloan

  • Publication Date: September 24, 2013
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Picador
  • ISBN-10: 1250037751
  • ISBN-13: 9781250037756