Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

“The whole world is just a patchwork quilt of crazy little cults, all with their own secret spaces, their own records, their own rules.”

Robin Sloan

I’m back, Constant Reader! HUZZAH! *does happy dance*

And, of course, with a Book Review. HUZZAH! (I won’t do the happy dance again.)

Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was kind of…an accidental purchase, by which I mean that I was inveigled into a bookshop visit and the transfer of money happened. It’s a book that has turned up in several internetty places, and it sounded intriguing: 24-hour bookstore? (Can we have one of those in England, please?) Mysterious reading cult? Life changing for ever? Yes please!

Slightly more coherent synopsis: recently redundant Clay Jannon is searching for work in San Francisco, and happens across the post of night-shift clerk at Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Soon, though, he begins noticing something weird: the stock of actual books for sale is tiny compared to the vast weight of old, old books – books in code – that are borrowed, not bought, by the mysteriously scatty customers who return regularly throughout the nights. Clay, of course, is intrigued, and goes on a Quest with a capital Q to find out what is going on.

So that all sounds awesome, right? And for the first fifty pages, it is. Clay, who narrates the book, has this wonderfully dry, sardonic voice that’s actually quite funny:

There were five different books about Richard Feynmann, but nothing at all about Albert Einstein. Thus spoke Penumbra.

He makes bullet-point lists, quips about bookish people and computers, and is gently sarcastic about his employer. And, like I said, this is fun for about fifty pages. Then it transpires that Clay is just a bit of a jerk, really. (And not in a good, Roland Deschain or Engleby-type way.) He’s a show-off – he always has to be the one who rushes off into trouble without any help at all – he’s arrogant, he’s resentful when it turns out that his girlfriend is interested in other things than him. (He compares her to a computer who can solve all his problems at one point. What a nice guy.)

As for the other characters, they’re essentially just placeholders, cardboard cut-outs to facilitate an actual plot. Do I care about Mr Penumbra? No, which is a shame, because he could be awesome. Do I care about Neel? No, he’s only there to finance Clay’s stupid plans. Do I care about Kat? No, she’s just someone for Clay to be unreasonably angry about. (Also, I think I’m right in saying that she’s the only significant female character here. Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore fails the Bechdel test spectacularly.)

The plot is OK, but not really unexpected enough to carry the novel on its own, and there are gaps in weird places, as if Sloan couldn’t be bothered to think out the details properly. (How did the ka-tet get to New York? What did they do in the two days before Penumbra got there?) The end, too, is…not rushed, exactly, but fuzzy, trite, and not entirely logical. I’m particularly angry about this blatant piece of booklovers’ blackmail (the last sentence of the novel, but not a spoiler):

A clerk and a ladder and warm golden light, and then: the right book exactly, at exactly the right time.

That’s a nice sentiment, a sentiment no booklover could resist, but the problem is that it’s not actually an accurate portrayal of what actually happens, as if Sloan thought up this sentence first and then tried to write a book around it. Bad decision. Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is disappointing.

PS. Happy L-space news: I’ve just discovered booktuber Veronica’s clever, funny videos about Literature. They’re awesome. Go watch.

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