Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
by Robin Sloan
“After that, the book will fade, the way all books fade in your mind. But I hope you will remember this:
A man walking fast down a dark lonely street. Quick steps and hard breathing, all wonder and need. A bell above a door and the tinkle it makes. A clerk and a ladder and warm golden light, and then: the right book exactly, at exactly the right time.” ― Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
The story begins with an unemployed young techie with an art school degree who spends his days browsing the web for want-ads, among other things, and reading--mostly the latter. He is Clay Jannon and his life is changed when he starts walking around his home base of San Francisco and happens upon a strange-looking bookstore with a sign in the window:
"HELP WANTED: Late Shift, Specific Requirements, Good Benefits"
The name of the bookstore is "Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore".
The adventure Clay begins when he decides to take that job is initially beyond his imagination. It combines elements of fantasy, mystery, friendship and adventure as a way of looking at the modern conflict and transition between new technology (electronic) and old (print books). It requires him to cooperate and sometimes scheme with new friends in pursuing elusive clues. At the heart of the novel is the collision of that old-world handwork and the automated digital age.
The new technology is very Google-oriented as Clay, soon after becoming comfortable in his new job, meets a Google employee named Kat who impresses him with her programming ability. Clay is forbidden to open the books yet required to describe the borrowers in great detail to the owner, Alex Penumbra. Late-night boredom catalyzes his curiosity, and soon Clay discovers that the books are part of a vast code. And it is not long before they are investigating the secrets of the strange bookstore. For it is strange in that it sells very few books and seems to exist for a mysterious society of book lovers who form a club that has access to private stacks in the back of the store. The secrets hidden in the books stretch back to the initial revolution in printing started by Gutenberg. It is this and other mysteries that create the suspense that sustains this lightweight but definitely interesting first novel.
Intertwined among the mysteries is Clay's love for an obscure fantasy novel by Clark Moffat called The Dragon-Song Chronicles. There is no way to say much more about the complicated plot without giving away too much of the enjoyment of discovering along with Clay the secrets behind the 24-Hour Bookstore.
This is an entertaining book that will appeal to both fantasy lovers and those who like mysteries. With its focus on the latest internet technology the story presents an interesting analogy between the printing revolution begun by Gutenberg and the digital revolution in books as it is being promoted by Google and other internet behemoths.
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