Clay Jannon, like so many others these days, has lost his job. He’s a web designer in San Francisco, and after looking around for a while, he’s ready to take the midnight shift in a strange little bookshop. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore is shaped like a shoebox placed on its side, tall and narrow, so ladder-climbing skills are necessary. Very few customers shop in the middle of the night, but those who do come in have borrowing cards, so Clay rarely makes a sale. Clay has never heard of these authors or titles, and Mr. Penumbra has told him never to look inside the books.
At home, Clay has a roommate who works for Industrial Light and Magic and is taking over the apartment with perfect models of cities. One of his gaming friends from middle school has become incredibly wealthy by building a special effects company based entirely on simulations of breasts—but he’s ready to branch out. Clay is smitten with a girl genius who works for Google in Palo Alto. In other words, if you’re a geek, this is your book.
This small band of creative nerds, along with the elderly, sprightly Mr. Penumbra, enters into a quest to unravel the secrets contained in the shadowy world of the bookstore. Secret codes and ancient cults meet social networking and brilliant hackers.
Robin Sloan writes in a lighthearted tone with plenty of wry, off-beat humor. Clay is a very appealing character, and we identify with this smart, regular guy surrounded by amazingly talented friends. He may not be able to access 10,000 computers at once, but he knows someone who can. He may not have lots of money to fund sudden trips to New York, but he knows someone who does. He doesn’t use his friends, though; he respects them, and he’s a pretty resourceful guy all around.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is also a book-lover’s book. Lots of names are dropped and issues discussed: print books versus ebooks, Google digitizing the world, independent bookstores, gaming geeks who love fantasy series, and so on. Penumbra also fits into the puzzle-solving mystery subgenre, which has exploded since the phenomenon called The Da Vinci Code. I am not usually a fan of this subgenre, but I did like Mr. Penumbra very much. I enjoy well-chosen ensemble casts, for one thing, and the writing style was very appealing. Occasionally, it was confusing when someone seemed to answer Clay’s thoughts, but that was my only quibble with style. I am a little bit tech-savvy, so I liked the gee-whizzy parts, but I am not knowledgeable enough to know how much is true and how much is science fiction. I’ve handed the book to my son so that he can enlighten me. He will love it; geeky, funny, and clever are big appeal factors for him. If they are for you, too, let me recommend this new book, due out October 2nd. Our publisher rep. tells me that it will have a glow-in-the-dark cover!
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely my own and not those of my employer. I read an advance reader copy supplied to the library by the publisher.