Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

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

Opening sentence: “Lost in the shadows of the shelves, I almost fall off the ladder.”

I saw this book in my local charity shop and was initially drawn to it due to the striking cover that (I discovered by accident one night) glows in the dark, a particularly nice (if slightly scary at the time) touch.

The story begins with lead character Clay Jannon taking a job in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore, that also functions as a library – a setting which, of course, had me intrigued. As the new starter, Clay has the night shift, where a few regular customers come in to borrow mysterious old books from the library section at the back of the store. We soon learn that these customers are all members of the ‘Unbroken Spine’, and are all on a quest for something. But what?

To pass the time on his nightshift, Clay starts a project – building a digital version of the bookstore – and it is this that leads him to make an intriguing discovery. It is a chance meeting with Kat, a passionate Google programmer that also helps him discover just what is going on in the 24-hour bookstore. A note on Mr. Penumbra, considering he is in the title, he is actually a more elusive yet intriguing character, I would have liked for him to feature a bit more.

The key theme of this novel is old knowledge vs. new knowledge. Good old-fashioned books vs. the digital revolution. The silicon valley setting of the bookstore, near to Google HQ, allows these ideas to literally merge in a physical place and Sloan certainly touches on some interesting ideas but, unfortunately, this book was just not as good as I really wanted it to be.

I enjoyed the writing style and the pace was perfectly pitched – it got the momentum going, had a suspenseful plot line and explored thought-provoking themes, but the ultimate climax left me feeling a bit deflated. Sloan didn’t quite fully execute his ideas of the power of books vs the power of the new digital age and the narrative hook – the big reveal of the secret of the Unbroken Spine, just really wasn’t that big. However, I would say that this is one of the quirkier reads I’ve had this year and for that reason, I did enjoy it.

Rating: 3/5

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