Ok, first of all, I have to tell you, THIS BOOK GLOWS IN THE DARK!!!!!!!!! I am not kidding. The back cover of this book literally glows in the dark. Since Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is about the joyous secrets of books, I’m probably ruining some major marketing secret of this book or at least destroying your moment of discovery, dear reader, but I cannot contain my excitement about this super cool fact.
Moving on. Now you probably have gleaned by now that I am pretty happy with anything historical or fairy tale related. I know I should read more literature set in contemporary times dealing with contemporary issues, but I’m pretty happy in my cozy little historical fiction/non-fiction/fairy-tale genre niche. And then I read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. This slim, almost innocuous volume is about the intersection of old knowledge (OK in, apparently, Google speak) and new technologies, books and Google. In fact, part of the book is set in Google’s Mountain View headquarters. The narrator, Clay, recently unemployed, stumbles into Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, located next to a strip club in San Francisco, in search of a job and finds just that, along with oddly specific log books detailing customer interactions, a centuries old mystery, a new tech-goddess girlfriend, and a chance to live the kind of adventure in his favorite childhood series, a riff on George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. Since I have already ruined the secret of the glow in the dark back cover, I will not reveal any more about the plot. However, this book not only reinforced that I should read contemporary-set literature but made me want to read more.
Robin Sloan is a unique voice, at least in my reading experience. I loved how natural and modern his prose was. The book reads more like Clay is telling us this story over coffee rather than us reading it in a book. That’s not to say it’s casual language, though. It walks that fine line between literary and popular (for lack of a better term), melding the best of both styles into language sophisticated yet familiar. Sloan masterfully captures our modern American way of speaking, occasionally acknowledging the habitual overuse of “like” as a placeholder (guilty) and creating spectacular and striking descriptive language that still feels organic and conversational. I wish I had read with post-it notes so I could give you some specific examples of his style that I just loved, but I didn’t and now I can’t find those wonderfully explosive sentences and phrases. You’ll just have to read it and find them for yourself.
Additionally, Sloan’s characters are comforting, familiar tweaks on the archetypes: the slightly aimless “rogue” hero, the “wizard” tech girl, the “warrior” billionaire (these are Clay’s own designations of himself, his girlfriend, Kat, and his best friend, Neel, based on his and Neel’s favorite fantasy series), the kindly yet mysterious elderly bookseller, the literally mustachioed villain, the brilliantly artistic roommate, etc. Within these archetypes, however, there are real people. I know these people, and you know them, too. That’s another part of the beauty of the contemporary setting of this book. The characters reflect much more directly my life and the lives of those close to me.
In that vein, I feel a kinship with Clay. I picked this book up several times since I received it last Christmas but never got around to reading it until now. I think I needed to read it now. At the beginning of the book, Clay, like me, is in transition. My transition was voluntary, though its duration is not, and that’s been a hard thing. Clay’s transition was not voluntary, and he sees this new position as a placeholder. However, it ultimately becomes the right opportunity for him, and it reminded me that I will find the right opportunity for me, even if it is in an unexpected place.
Ultimately this book is about opportunity, place, and immortality. It asks the questions we all ask: What is my purpose and how will I live on after I’m gone? The characters have a variety of understandings of immortality. Some desperately believe in immortality in the most literal sense. Others believe in legacy, and still others believe in the accumulation of knowledge as immortality. It all boils down to Mr. Penumbra’s question: “What do you seek in these shelves?”
This is a truly excellent book. I would recommend it even if I didn’t need it right now. Sloan’s weaves a tight, fast-paced, narrative with a sense of depth and heart that is charming, humerous, and completely engrossing. It is definitely a page turner. I loved meeting these characters and sharing their world for a while, and I strongly encourage you all to visit Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, too. I know it won’t be for all of you, but for me, it was “the right book exactly, at exactly the right time.” Climb, my boy!