Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan. Copyright 2012. Fiction. ISBN 9781250037756.
In 2012, the Great Recession has left many jobless, including one Clay Jonnin, a designer and programmer with only one award and less than a year of experience under his belt. Where his friends have visions, work for Google, or run multi-million dollar enterprises, he’s looking for work in San Francisco. He ends up in front of the eponymous bookstore.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a novel that attempts to reconcile the old world—that is, books, paper, and printing—with the new world: computers, programming, and immense archives of ebooks. It is a book for the nerdy (or geeky) booklover, blending technology, fantasy, and the real world together into a story about an enigmatic bookseller and the secret organization that lies just beneath the surface of his unassuming store.
Style and Technique:
In many ways, the book itself reflects the story. Mr. Penumbra’s cover is unassuming and not immediately attention-grabbing, just like the outside of Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore. In both cases, however, it’s the title that makes you look twice, and in both cases, you’re drawn into a story that’s more than it seems at first glance. (Also, the cover glows in the dark, so that’s a plus.)
The main mystery of Mr. Penumbra’s revolves around the strange, unintelligible books stocked by the San Francisco bookstore and the passionate allure they hold for the store’s patrons. This aspect is aided and abetted by more questions: How can the bookstore stay open if no one buys the books? Why does the store stock so few books that might actually appeal to a broader audience? Why 24 hours?
Unfortunately, as quirky and interesting as this may be to booklovers and geeks alike, the story is convenient and unbelievable. The motivations of the antagonists (left unsaid here to avoid spoilers) are silly and ridiculous, especially for a group of people who are supposed to be intelligent scholars, adept at researching and breaking codes. The plot cannot be taken seriously without swallowing a tablespoon of salt, and possibly one’s pride as well.
Sloan writes in first-person, present tense, using a character just bland enough (or with just enough personality) for nearly any reader to relate to and find likable. However, rather than seeing things through Clay’s eyes, the book is written as though Clay is describing everything to the reader. This can lead to separation of reader and book, with the reader feeling as though they are being told a story, instead of being truly immersed.
However, these faults do not mean that Mr. Penumbra’s is an unenjoyable book. It is clever in some parts, an interesting concept, and makes several references (some of them pretty meta) that readers will catch and be amused by (including references to a certain Mr. Moffat). Sloan also breaks a few of the golden rules of writing, which include things like “don’t introduce new characters or plotlines during your book’s climax.” In a book about breaking (or updating) the old rules, however, this doesn’t seem too out of place.
The book, set in 2012, includes a wide cast of characters of the new millennium, including the young who are tech-savvy (extremely, they all seem to know how to code, design, or program), and the older who are oblivious to or dislike new technologies. This could have made the book great. However, this means that the book is filled with references to Facebook, Google, and Twitter—references that are going to be obsolete, given five years or so. Furthermore, the presence of so many technological savants robs the book of its tension: The characters can find the answers to their questions by Googling. In fact, the character of Kat Potente has a job with Google, and can use their resources with little trouble. Clay’s millionaire friend who runs a graphics and animation tool company can supply him with any money he needs over the course of the book. His artist friend can make models of anything. At some point, the reader begins to wonder exactly why Clay is even needed in the first place.
The second kind of characters, the older people who are unfamiliar with technology, also have their own foibles. Corvina, the main antagonist, holds the view that all technological developments are evil and worthless, to the point where he becomes a clichéd caricature, all imperious looks and cloak-sweeping. Mr. Penumbra, on the other hand, makes a refreshing change in that he is eager to learn new technology and sees its value.
Sloan could have done better with fewer clichés and a focus on character depth instead of width, as a quiet book such as this one with a wide cast of two-dimensional characters does not make for an exciting read.
What need has the world for a 24-hour bookstore? When you read this book, you may as well ask what need has the world for technology and secrets as well. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a light, fast, and light-hearted read: entertaining, but with little depth. 3 out of 5 stars.