Robin Sloan’s Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: A Review

December 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

The yellow on the cover glows, in true alchemical style!

The yellow on the cover glows, in true alchemical style!

Tell me, reader, are you a self-professed bibliophile? A lover of literature? A fan of fiction? If so, this book is for you.

Or are you a techie, trending the most up-to-date applications on the internet? This book is for you too.

Maybe you’re the quintessential thinker, Saint-Exupéry or Jostein Gaarder style? Then this book is for you.

This first novel by Robin Sloan is a quaint gem, blending story, technology and philosophy into a heartwarming page-turner. Old meets new meets the universal in this memorable triptych, which is a mystery, romance and fantasy rolled into one.

Sounds confusing already? It might. But Robin Sloan never lets you feel it, even as the characters fly from West to East (San Francisco to New York, to be precise), fall in and out of love, discovering and losing great secrets before rediscovering them. At its simplest and deepest, his message is a tribute to the power of friendship and the importance of faith in those whom you love. Which is not really a new lesson for anyone, is it?

Twenty-something-almost-thirty year-old Clay Jannon is a San Francisan IT savant recently retrenched from his job as web designer and social media manager of a tiny bagel outfit, which went under in the recent fast-food industry slump. To Clay, it was a “great food-chain contraction” that left “bankrupt burger chains and shuttered sushi empires in its wake”, which gives you an idea of Sloan’s flair for the imaginative and dramatic right from the start.

Clay is demoralised by his mediocre accomplishments, especially when compared to those of his peers. Walking around his city, Clay stumbles upon the titular bookshop which eventually becomes his new place of employment. The eccentric owner, Mr. Penumbra (which owner of a dusty little bookshop would not be eccentric?), hires Clay on the spot after he successfully answers some questions, chiefly: “What do you seek in these shelves?”; “Tell me about a book you love”; and “Can you climb a ladder?”

Brisbane's iconic BENT BOOKS, a beloved 2nd-hand bookstore in the city's West End.

Brisbane’s iconic BENT BOOKS, a beloved 2nd-hand bookstore in the city’s West End.

As he serves as book clerk, Clay soon learns that there is a deeper meaning to at least one of these questions, playing host to a slew of puzzling patrons who seem less interested in the bookshop’s main fare than the mysterious volumes tucked deep inside the shadowy shelves he dubs the “Waybacklist”. Together with his friends, Clay digs deeper into the secret of Mr Penumbra’s bookstore and realises that the readers are really searching for the answer to Man’s greatest question of all: “How do you live forever?”

Top-secret cults, baffling codex vitae (roughly translated “book of life”) and sinister robed figures feature prominently in the story, and you might be forgiven for thinking this is not totally out of Da Vinci Code territory. Yet there are pleasant surprises via Sloan’s injections of modernity; with a background involving a stint at Twitter and colloquialism. Ruby, a programming language, is “friendly, accessible poetry”, while Hadoop (a large-scale data-processing software) and Mechanical Turk (a web service that can request for human assistance with various tasks) becomes “King Hadoop and ten thousand Estonian footmen”. Even Google itself features in lots of code-cracking and impressive displays of technology. It doesn’t hurt that Clay and more than a few of his friends happen to be really smart and/or good with computers–his buddies include a Google employee, a special effects artist, and a self-made CEO of a software company. Just how lucky can one get, really?

Bent Books has all the character you expect of a 2nd hand bookstore.

Bent Books has all the character you expect of a 2nd hand bookstore.

Sloan would argue that such characters are essential to the story, because each of them has a particular role to fill. Clay is the rogue who does the dirty and dangerous work; Kat, his love interest, is a wizard of data and code, while his childhood best friend Neel is the warrior with a horde of gold to boot (fun fact: he made his money inventing a software that allows computer game and movie companies to create really realistic-looking boobs). In searching for the answer on how to live forever, the characters and their journey attain a kind of immortality themselves — through the literary motif of the quest. That Clay’s all-time favourite book was a fantasy tome is no coincidence; even the author returns from the grave to give help and reveal himself as a secret cult member. Yet the final treasure for these characters isn’t gold or even mere heroism, but the wisdom that immortality can come in more than one way or one form.

Sloan’s novel reveals nothing new, no lesson that was not already apparent. His gift is the combination of seemingly disparate ideas, transformed into alchemical perfection. For any book-lover who has bemoaned the death of brick-and-mortar bookshops while fervently clutching a Kindle in his hand, any technophile who still yearns for the good old schooldays of yore playing ‘Dungeons and Dragons’, this story will help them bring those threads together, with the assurance that eternal life is available to all and that “all the secrets in the world worth knowing are hiding in plain sight”. It is a story will make you pause, wonder and understand, eventually, the truth of how to live.

This review was written by a guest writer for The Novelettes, Nicola Cheong. Thanks Nicola!

Want to visit Bent Books, but don’t live in Brisbane? Thanks to the wonders of technology, you can! What an age we live in, right folks? Take a virtual tour of Bent Books by clicking on the link here. 

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