I love books. I love everything about them. I like the way they look, the way they feel, the way they smell, but most of all, I love that they contain a story. All these together sum up why I was excited to read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. It is a book about old books, secret societies, ancient puzzles, the ever-expanding limits of modern technology, and the sad and rapid decline of used bookstores. I couldn’t wait to download it onto my Kindle. How ironic.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is mainly about a modern young man named Clay Jannon, an unemployed RISD-trained designer stumbling about San Francisco. He is eventually employed at the unusual 24-Hour Bookstore, owned by the very old Mr. Penumbra. The store is narrow with shelves so high that shadows hide the top rows. Soon he notices a few different people handing him a card with the bookstore’s logo that allows them to “check out” specific old books in a strange language. Curious, Clay wonders if there is some reason behind it.
Clay then meets beautiful computer genius Kat. Kat works for Google and isn’t shy about using its resources for her own personal reasons. He is soon smitten—by her looks and intelligence, but mostly her looks. (Which I am not particularly happy about, but it is unfortunately very realistic.)
With some help from one of his roommate’s and some ninja skills, Clay manages to sneak out a log book which contains every customer transaction. With the help of Kat and Google Book Reader, Clay finds a pattern with the books. Unfortunately, due to Clay’s little book caper, Mr. Penumbra is in big trouble with the Unbroken Spine, a secret society that has existed for five hundred years. During that time, the Unbroken Spine has been dedicated to unlocking a certain riddle that the founder had created that may lead to immortality. Feeling guilty, and fearing for Mr. Penumbra’s safety, Clay goes on a quest to find the Unbroken Spine headquarters and save his boss.
Though I liked the book it had a few problems. Clay’s love interest Kat had more than a few manic pixie dream girl traits: she had pink hair, she wore the same red comic book “POW!” shirt every time Clay saw her (much like a cartoon character), she used slang that no one else uses in reality, and she put everything in her life on hold in order to help some guy she met in a used bookstore.
Kat wasn’t all bad though; unlike other MPDGs she has a job that has nothing to do with baking; she proves her genius programming abilities instead of them just mentioned; and though she does help Clay with little discussion beforehand, she is not a perfect girlfriend. Like many intelligent tech-savvy people, she has a temper, she is impatient, and does not do well with failure. I liked Kat, but she could have had more dialogue. Clay, despite being the narrator, was only interesting in action. His thoughts were boring, and borderline whiny. He didn’t become exciting until the end; I suppose he just had to grow into a character I could stand.
The most thought-provoking character was the mysterious Mr. Penumbra, an old man whose love of books that outranks my own. The first question Mr. Penumbra asks Clay is “What do you seek in these shelves?” When I read that, my heart fluttered. I knew I was in for an amazing tale. I enjoyed this book a lot. Though is a very modern novel and may not age well, it is an excellent representation of people now in their mid-twenties to early thirties. The blending of a 16th century secret society and modern technology was done very well and the characters were believable enough for what they were used for. It is truly a story for book lovers and technology nuts everywhere!