This is a spoiler-free review
First Published: 2009
Imagine the shape and volume of a normal bookstore turned up on its side, with shelves going all the way up until their end fades ominously into the shadows.
This is the view that presents itself in front of Clay Jannon as he enters Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore for the first time, enquiring about a job as a clerk.
Little does he know, however, that what looks like a curious independent bookstore, is part of something much bigger and mysterious.
Following Clay and many other eccentric and lovable characters, we step into the meanders of a centuries-old mystery. A solution seems to present itself, but it will require that the old knowledge passed on through books and tradition unite forces with the most sophisticated technology.
I came across Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore while visiting the historically significant City Lights Bookstore, in San Francisco. I was looking for a book written by a local author and possibly talking about the city. On the Road, by Jack Kerouac would probably have been most people’s straightforward answer to my research, but to be completely honest with you, I wasn’t aware of its direct connection to San Francisco at the time. However, I’m very glad that the gorgeous bright yellow cover of Robin Sloan’s debut novel called my attention. It was a fantastic discovery and a great reading experience.
I found the story to be very compelling. We follow Clay, our main character, as he is transported into a maze of codes and encrypted messages that lead to the existence of a secret society. This strange group is trying to find the key to a five hundred year old mystery and this is the main driver of the plot in the novel. The action is therefore fast-paced and exciting. It certainly will appeal to anyone’s inner child. Personally, I wasn’t able to predict where the author was leading us until after around three quarters of the novel.
The writing style also helps in giving a sense of a quickly advancing storyline. Sloan’s pen is fluid and reads very smoothly. The novel is the first person and it feels as if Clay is explaining what’s happening to a friend. The language is therefore colloquial and the tone is always humorous. The use of present tense, which I don’t always appreciate, here works well. From the very beginning, I was feeling a strong connection to the story and the characters. Only once there was a construction using the present that sounded odd to me.
Where Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore really shines, at least to me, is in the creation and description of its setting and characters. The first thing that will enrapture any reader and booklover is indeed the setting of Mr. Penumbra’s Bookstore. To quote the narrator of the novel, this is a bookshop where people would come to buy books about wizards, or rather, this is a bookstore where wizards would come and leaf through books. The shop is located on Broadway which, surprise surprise, is where the City Lights Bookstore can be found in real life. Just a coincidence? I beg to differ. Sloan also introduces us to the world of Google and startups, where creativity and experimentation keeps pushing the boundaries of human possibilities. In both cases he describes these places in an enchanting way and always with the right dose of humour. Google and Mr. Penumbra’s Bookstore (and the headquarters of the society too) are presented with all their quirkiness and peculiarity. They appear as temples of knowledge and creation, each in their own way, each with their own adepts. But don’t think that Sloan is opposing technology and literature as two completely separate spheres. On the contrary, through Clay Jannon’s adventure we are offered a vision where these two aspects of life become complementary and complete each other.
The characters are as enthralling as the setting. Often, a sentence or an adjective will suffice to sketch a well-rounded character, such as Fedorov and Ms Lapin. They each have a very distinct voice that makes them unique. Yes, the novel doesn’t present a great character development. Only Clay undergoes some sort of growth. This, however, doesn’t bother the reader, because the novel’s attempt is not of exploring the depth of human emotion in face of all the struggles that life throws at us, but to entertain and amuse. Clay, Mr. Penumbra, Kat, Neel, Mat, Ashley…each character has its valuable strength and its strange habits. It’s impossible not to fall in love with this group of extravagant people. I also found that I could easily identify people in my life that corresponded to the characters in the book.
The only thing that I didn’t like was the ending. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about the way the story ended. I was quite satisfied with that. I’m talking about the very last two paragraphs in the epilogue. They just left me perplexed. They felt unnecessary to me. I would have preferred the novel to end with the sentence – and I’m not spoiling anything here, don’t worry – ‘All the secrets in the world worth knowing are hiding in plain sight’, which really summarises what the essence of the novel is to me. Fortunately, this slight flaw didn’t stop me from really loving the novel.
I would recommend Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore to anyone looking for a good-hearted read. Sloan’s admiration for human craftiness and ingenuity comes across very powerfully. It clearly is the work of someone who can see the beauty and greatness in the things that surround us, physical, digital or fantastical. The whole novel emanates an aura of magic. The story, its message and its eccentric characters cannot but appeal to you and leave you with a warm feeling and a smile on your lips. All you need to do is to let free range to your imagination and Sloan’s pen will do transport you inside this beautiful adventure.