Robin Sloan – Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Book Review)

“There are plenty of people who, you know — people who still like the smell of books.”

“The smell!” Penumbra repeats. “You know you are finished when people start talking about the smell.”

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore cover

Robin Sloan – Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

The tension between physical and digital books is a big topic today, and so it’s unsurprising to find a novel based around that. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore strikes an admirable balance, appreciative of the past while also celebrating the future. Its characters generally don’t see this divide in black-and-white terms, either. There’s the mysterious old bookstore owner, for example, who is actually fascinated by the promise of new technology. Also, people on both “sides” share many things in common. But this nuanced look at technology and cultural changes is overshadowed by a plot about a puzzle-solving secret society, and the series of missions that the narrator must go through to learn the truth.

When he isn’t caught up in his especially arbitrary Dan Brown pastiche, author Robin Sloan manages to pass for Neal Stephenson-lite. He has a firm understanding of modern technology and culture, and that permeates the book in a way that seems real but will also make this feel dated in three years. However, Sloan doesn’t mind adding obviously false details to make the plot work, which clashes with the realism. Overall, it seems best to think of this as a parable about our time, but the points are still a little unclear. For example, at the start of the book, narrator Clay Jannon is a techie facing long-term unemployment in today’s economy. But Sloan also wants to comment on today’s new media and commercial opportunities, so every supporting character he introduces is successful and fulfilled in their unique, quirky job. To accept the story, you need to appreciate both that jobs are nearly impossible to find and also that everyone is defining their own successful niche, and the novel never does anything to address this contrast.

Despite the nuanced view on books-versus-technology, characters aren’t very fleshed out. Effectively, they are plot tools just as surely as the made up technologies, books, and even subcultures that all turn out to be just what Clay needs to overcome challenges. In fact, Clay seems especially one-dimensional. For the most part, he just reacts to events around him, and the only hint of character development we get early on is that he is so eager to keep a job that he goes along with the mysterious events happening at the bookstore. But later, he turns out to be dedicated to open source software and free information, so every time he is entrusted with information he immediately tells someone else about it. This sudden willfulness surprised me, and I kept expecting him to get in trouble for betraying other peoples’ confidences. It turns out not to matter, though. Everything that Sloan writes is in service to the plot of the book and its mysteries, so basically, once the reader has learned something, why should anyone bother hiding it from the rest of the characters any more? (Similarly, even fleeting characters who shouldn’t even know about the mystery are presumed to be really interested in its outcome at the end.)

Mr. Penumbra is a cute book (if a little too confident in how charming its modern setting is), and it almost succeeds as a light, turn-your-brain-off-and-ignore-the-coincidences, mystery. This worked sometimes, but I had trouble letting go. The problem is that the novel’s hook is supposed to be about something, with a lot of tantalizing glimpses of the way technology is changing our culture. But since I kept rolling my eyes at the plot and characters, it wasn’t possible for those ideas to go anywhere. This book would have been more enjoyable if it hadn’t tried, and failed, to address serious themes.

Grade: C

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