The smell of musk mixes with worn leather and dried ink. Dust particles dance in the beam of sunlight that shoots through the open windows, illuminating the front of the store, but falls short of piercing the wayback list. Floor to ceiling, the wallpaper of the store is the leatherbacks and wood panels of bookshelves threatening to cave under their cargo’s weight. The twinkle of the bell over the door is the only sound to cut through the quiet. This is Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore.
Written by Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore beautifully integrates the antiquated past and the fast approaching future. The novel follows Clay Jannon, former web-designer whose desperate need of job sets the story into motion. Clay stumbles upon the small bookshop and upon meeting the short man with the crinkling eyes, Mr. Penumbra employs Clay to work the night shift.
Set in the quickly developing San Francisco, Clay meets a cast of characters while on the job. The shop caters to two very different clientele. There are the everyday San Franciscans, who stumble off the street and might pick up a Steinbeck and then be on their way. Then there is the eccentric “community of people who orbit the store like strange moons.”These character’s borrow books, using their unique cards, from volumes secluded in the back of the store. Clay is warned not to read these books, but of course once told not to do something, he cracks open one of the ancient titles to find it is written in code. Once the reader decodes one book, it leads to another and so on and so forth. The ultimate goal is to crack the Founder’s Puzzle and become part of the secret society known as the Unbroken Spine.
Kat Potente is part of the former group and is one of the geniuses that works at Google. Clay and Kat quickly develop a budding romances, as was expected as she is the second female character the reader meets and the only one with much substance. Their relationship is cute, albeit unnecessary, and does little to advance the story. But therein lies the weakest points of the novel: its characters. Each character has the potential to be so interesting and intriguing, but a lack of development leaves them falling as flat as the page itself.
The plot is where this novel shines. It all feels very magical and other-world like and Sloan does a beautiful job of contrasting the story with references to the advancing technology of today such as data imaging and virtual reality. But what drives this book, is its obsession with immortality.
Mr. Penumbra and Kat provide interesting foils to one another. Penumbra feels stuck in the past, while simultaneously intrigued by the future. As a member of the Unbroken he too is working to decode the Founders “Codex Vitae” believed to unlock the secret to immortality. Then there’s Kat, a young women racing towards the future and “The Singularity”, the moment when humans with the aid of technology will be able to live forever. Kat is part of a society of her own, becoming one of the Product Managers of Google, obsessed with the brevity of human life and desperate for more time.
Apart from these deep philosophical quandaries, the book is a fun ride, working to break one puzzle that inevitably leads to the next. At times the puzzles and roadblocks are all solved just a little too easily, and with a novel dealing with such complex and interesting notions, I almost wish it all had not ended so easily. I am a big believer in happy endings, but I wanted a satisfying ending, and Clay easily breaking the code and discovering the secret to immortality, felt too easy and cheap.
Mr. Penumbra’s was an adventure, that at once felt familiar and new. The intrigue and the books themselves drive the story, making it a quick, fun read, stretching and bending your imagination.