Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Strange things are afoot at Penumbra’s 24 hour bookstore

The problem with booklovers, and the wonderful thing about booklovers, is that the books are never enough. We are beset by nostalgia about story, and language, and learning and the physical books themselves. We reblog and sigh over piles of artistically shot leather bound tomes. We are drawn to images of libraries, vast and ancient and appointed in gothic magnificence. The fact those books are most likely not novels, but ancient collections of philosophy or old law books, or ledgers full of who bought what sheep for how many pigs is something we don’t think about. We don’t really care because they are books, they hold some sort of knowledge, they hold something worth writing down. I heard a lot of people gushing about how this was a book for booklovers and went into it really wanting to love it.

This is the story of Clay, who lost his job as web-guru to a bagel business when the recession hit. So here he is, addicted to the internet and looking for a job. As a result, he would print out a pile of want ads, shut the laptop and hit the bricks, sifting through the ads and looking for something that didn’t require him to trade his soul for a job. It was on one of these walks that he found a help-wanted ad, right there in the window. It is a bookstore owned by Mr. Penumbra, but he finds out it is more than a bookstore. There is another side to it – besides the regular random bookstore browser, there is a small cadre of people who come to “check out” books kept on special shelves that Clay refers to as the way-back books. These are books he is not to browse through, read or otherwise inspect.

Don’t get me wrong because there is a lot to love in this. I liked the interesting cast of characters. I LOVED that it was set in my city, San Francisco, though I didn’t get that much of a San Fran feel to it after the first little bit. I loved the thing about the strange old people coming into the strange old bookshop to check out the strange old books. For me, this lost cohesiveness when Clay begins to break down the mystery of the books and the ancient bookclub. He starts to look into it, and (spoiler alert) he discovers something, using technology.

First, I feel like some of the tech jumps in this are unreasonable. I don’t think some of the stuff he’s claiming Google can do are do-able, Google or no. I can’t talk about what I didn’t like without a slight spoiler – but please understand, this book has several stages of discovery – all I’m saying is that at one point there is a code to be cracked. Everyone acts like plugging a mysterious code into a machine gets an instantaneous answer. That is not true in the real world – there are real-world codes that have yet to be broken, despite years of attempts at solving them, including the use of computers for more than a half-century, some of them going back to antiquity. I also felt Clay’s first discovery with the books was… well, confusing as hell. I didn’t understand it, so it wasn’t all up in my grill getting me excited.

There is a lot of of intrigue, and I enjoyed the way Clay and his friends worked together – very Ocean’s 11 but for a new generation. It felt very near to my XGen heart. I got the whole tech vs. OK (Old Knowledge) was a very big theme in this, including a secret society doing things in the old way. And the stodgy old guy who would burn member’s books and who fought for 20 years over putting in electric lighting. Clay had some interesting roommates, but they really had no place in the story, yet were fully developed. Sort of a gun put on the mantle that never went off.  I like the relationship he had with Cat but then things were left in a very obtuse way. In the end, I kinda thought Cat sucked.  I don’t know what happened there. I didn’t think the big giant reveal at the end was well explained, either. But then… the epilogue. The epilogue kinda hacked me off, so it sort of knocked this book down to a 3. I might like to watch this if it were a movie but this just didn’t chime with me like I had hoped it would.

Spoilerators are ahead regarding the epilogue and what made me so mad. The very first sentence is a spoiler so don’t go farther if you don’t want to know what happens to the bookstore.

In the end, this wonderful old bookstore is turned into a mother fucking rock climbing place. Are you for serial? This thing, you do not do. You do not take away a bookstore in a book written about books and bookstores. You do not. You do not do this thing. But this thing is done and for this thing, I will not forgive the author.

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