Robin Sloan Stirs New and Old Literary Tech in Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
"I wrote this book because it's the one I wanted to read, and I tried to pack it full of the things I love: books and bookstores; design and typography; Silicon Valley and San Francisco; fantasy and science fiction; quests and projects. If you love those things too, I hope and believe you will enjoy a visit to the tall skinny bookstore next to the strip club." --Robin Sloan
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is a suspenseful, fundamentally good-natured fantasy story set in the present that people over the age of 15 don't have to feel sheepish about reading in public.
Not that there's anything wrong with Harry Potter, but Robin Sloan's debut novel is a well written story with adult characters and some chewy themes. And some swear words. And some sex (implied, not explicit, but still...)
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Our hero's name is Clay Jannon, and when we first meet him, he's just started working as the night clerk at Penumbra's, an eccentric bookstore in San Francisco that, true to its name, actually stays open around the clock, and serves an equally eccentric clientele.
At first Clay is convinced that "24-hour bookstore" is a euphemism for something, in what he calls "a euphemistic part of town"; Penumbra's stands next to a place called Booty's, which has a neon sign outside it showing legs that cross and uncross. Here's Sloan's description of the interior of the bookstore: "Imagine the shape and volume of a normal bookstore turned up on its side.
This place was absurdly narrow and dizzyingly tall, and the shelves went all the way up -- three stories of books, maybe more. ...The shelves were packed close together, and it felt like I was standing at the border of a forest -- not a friendly California forest, either, but an old Transylvanian forest, a forest full of wolves and witches and dagger wielding bandits all waiting just beyond moonlight's reach. There were ladders that clung to the shelves and rolled side to side. Usually those seem charming, but here, stretching up into the gloom, they were ominous. They whispered rumors of accidents in the dark."
Over the course of the novel, Clay figures out the real purpose of Penumbra's and the link between its members, with the help of some believably quirky friends -- including Clay's longtime best friend, Neel, with whom he "bonded... over a shared obsession with books about singing dragons" in the sixth grade, and Kat, the smart-girl love interest, who works at Google.
Google is practically a main character, the place takes up so much real estate here, and one of the great pleasures of Sloan's novel is the way he meshes new tech and old tech approaches in Clay's search for the secret behind both his shadowy workplace and his employer, the mysterious Penumbra.
Reading this book, you get the feeling that Sloan is somebody who could explain exactly how a Kindle works, and express admiration for the technology, while still preferring to hold an actual book in his hands when he's reading.
In the end, like all good fantasy, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore keeps the reader engaged not only because there's a mystery to unravel but, ultimately, because it's about the magic of the everyday -- the miracle of shared knowledge and true friends and "of the right book exactly, at exactly the right time."
P.S. The cover glows in the dark. Don't be freaked out.
Deborah Sussman is a public relations specialist at ASU Art Museum, a former writer for Phoenix Jewish News, and a contributor to Phoenix New Times. She also leads the Downtown Phoenix Book Group at MADE.