I picked up a (hard)copy of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan at one of my favourite local bookstores, Pulpfiction Books. I’ve been eying the book for a while—I even had a discussion with a staff member at Armchair Books in Whistler about the less-than-appealing cover design*. A novel about a bookstore involved in a mystery and conspiracy sounded very intriguing to me, and I snagged a copy a few months ago.
The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon out of his life as a San Francisco web-design drone, and serendipity, sheer curiosity and the ability to climb a ladder like a monkey have landed him a new gig working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.
But after just a few days on the job, Clay begins to realize that this store is even more curious than the name suggests. There are only a few customers, but they come in repeatedly and never seem to actually buy anything, instead “checking out” impossibly obscure volumes from strange corners of the store, all according to some elaborate, long-standing arrangement with gnomic Mr. Penumbra.
The store must be a front for something larger, Clay concludes, and soon he has embarked on a complex analysis of the customers’ behaviour and roped his friends into helping him figure out just what’s going on. But once they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, they discover the secrets extend far beyond the walls of the bookstore.
From the publisher, HarperCollins Canada
Robin Sloan built the tension well, with several minor obstacles, but while the stakes were high, it felt soft. I kept waiting and bracing myself for something bad to actually happen. For Clay to experience repercussions for his choices and actions. But it never came. The main characters are not fully developed and rarely experienced hardships or backlash due to their actions, and if they did it was short-lived. The quest-part of the novel feels rushed, and many of the solutions to obstacles are just too convenient.
Don’t get me wrong, the novel is certainly enjoyable, just more of a light adventure/quest than a hard thriller. It would be like if Stieg Larsson or Dan Brown wrote for young adults and teens. This is Sloan’s first novel, and he does show a talent for cooking up a good tale, even if his storytelling and writing skills need development. I would be interested in reading his next book.
However, I loved how reverently many of the characters treated print books, and how technology intersected the world, even if some of the “data viz” stuff and Google-related descriptions are (inevitably) soon to be dated. And the romantic subplot is mild and almost unnecessary in my opinion. Penumbra himself advocated for using the new technology to supplement and assist the old technology, and I personally agree with this approach.
*Note: The cover does glow in the dark, which is pretty cool.