The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

Review: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (Macmillan, 2012)

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
It's very rare that a book comes along which ticks all of your boxes at once. When it does, it's a magical experience. With Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, debut author Robin Sloan reduced me to a grinning school kid within the first ten pages. By the (all-too-short) time I reached the climax, delight had been piled upon delight until I couldn't take any more. If you share any of my love for books, technology, eclectic intellectual pursuits and good old-fashioned quest stories then dive in with me.

Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore takes place in a near-future San Francisco where the global economic meltdown has resulted in spiralling unemployment levels, forcing even the most highly-skilled workers into a search for whatever menial labour will help them scrape by. One such unfortunate is Clay Jannon, a former web guru who finds himself out of work and out of luck during the IT crunch. Walking SF's streets one night, eyes constantly scanning for 'Help Wanted' notices, he comes across a non-descript bookstore in an unusual part of town, knocking walls with a seedy strip joint.

Inquiring inside he meets the titular owner and all-round character, Mr Penumbra. After a bizarrely brief interview, Clay finds himself manning the store for the graveyard shift. It goes without saying that Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is no Waterstone's. Customers are rarer than Bigfoot sightings, and almost as likely as a Sasquatch to actually buy anything. Those who do arrive with a purpose do not hand over cash. They belong to a mysterious club, exchanging one title for another. The titles in question are stored in the dizzying heights of the shop's 30-ft high shelves, out of sight of casual browsers.

Clay's unusual job description requires him to log the mysterious guests' visits – times, behaviour, appearance, books requested – and not to peer inside any of their tomes. However it's not long before his curiosity gets the better of him and he finds himself caught up in the proceedings of a bizarre secret society. With the aid of his friends – an artist working for ILM, a Google techie and a specialist in creating perfect CGI breasts – he's soon racing the cult to their ultimate goal. Somewhere in the shelves lies the secret of immortality, deposited there by Aldus Manutius, one of the real-life originators of the modern publishing system.

What follows is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through not only the streets of San Francisco and New York but also through the publishing arts past and present. Through the ingenuity of Clay's cadre of specialists we dive into the history of the printed word, the intricacies of typesetting and the politics of publishing. The secret society are determined to unravel Manutius's mystery using only the ancient techniques he would have had access to. These arcane arts are loving described by Sloan, careful never to disparage them, although placing them in the hands of a misguided and somewhat Luddite leader.

Set in stark contrast to this, the action is aided by the vast computing resources of San Francisco's most famous export – Google. Clay's girlfriend is involved in their data visualisation department and her thirst for ever-greater problems to solve lights a more technologically advanced path. At times Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore seems in danger of becoming a fan boy paean to the search giant but thankfully maintains a respectful distance while doing a remarkable job of drawing back the curtain and giving the reader a glimpse behind the scenes at Mountain View.

It would be all too easy to compare Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore to several recent conspiracy-themed blockbusters, notably the execrable Dan Brown canon. However Robin Sloan's quest for 'truth' mercifully does not take itself the slightest bit seriously. It's more reminiscent of a literary game, playing with genre tropes and throwing the reader off on mental wild goose chases for the sheer fun of it. Sloan's extensive knowledge of the history, present and future of both traditional and electronic publishing is as informative as it is entertaining – do you know what a hadoop is? You soon will. This never turns into information overload though, the story remaining perfectly balanced between exposition and action so as to keep you glued to every page. In fact the only thing wrong with this book is that it is over all too soon, the action all wrapped up in a movie-style epilogue barely after I had opened it.

Mr Sloan? Much more of the same please...

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones. Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Book Store - A Novel is available now.

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