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

Clay Jannon is an out of work San Francisco web designer, who, by chance one night, passes by a 24 hour bookstore with a Help Wanted sign in the window. Upon entering, he is immediately taken back by the look – and feel – of the store itself, which ives him the eerie sensation of standing at the border of “a forest full of wolves and witches and dagger-wielding bandits all waiting just beyond moonlight’s reach.”

But Clay desperately needs a job, so when an older, slight man dressed in a light blue cardigan (it matches the color of his eyes) appears and identifies himself as Mr. Penumbra, Clay inquires about the late shift job opening. “Have you ever worked in a store before?” Penumbra asks. When Clay admits he hasn’t, the old man doesn’t bat an eye. “Prior experience in the book trade is of little use to you here,” he states.

Clay gets the job, and the adventure begins.

It turns out that Penumbra’s is more than a bookstore; or rather, it’s not much of a bookstore. The inventory is hit or miss, and among the missing are the blockbuster best sellers, the popular titles, the works that might actually bring in a profit. What’s also missing are customers. Weeks go by with Clay barely making any sales. It doesn’t advertise, it has no internet presence, and Clay wonders how it even manages to stay in business.

But there’s another side of the bookstore. There are other books, obscure ones, stacked above the books that are for sale. More than obscure, it’s like they don’t exist – not on Google, not in the Library of Congress. And they are requested by a second set of customers, who arrive with “algorithmic regularity”. These customers know exactly what they want, and they always return a book when requesting a new one, like a mysterious lending library of a secret society. And Clay, who has too much time on his hands, starts to get curious.

Of course there is a lot more to the story, and it flies by at a galloping pace. In fact, it’s the loose and energetic details that really let Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore shine. Not just the dusty bookstores and dark, secret societies, but also the forays into high tech, with involvement by the data visualization corps at Google headquarters, Industrial Light and Magic artist expertise, and even the involvement of a cyber Robin Hood who goes by the handle “Grumble”.

And all that is tied together by some wonderful supporting characters:  by-chance friend/hacker/Google employee Kat; roommate Mat, who is building a model of a city he calls Matropolis which is slowly overtaking the living room; geeky best friend since sixth grade, D&D gamer Neel, who now owns his own prosperous company that does 3D scanning, but remains a nerd at heart to name just a few.

So what is Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore?  Is it a modern fellowship-quest type of adventure? A dark and cryptic secret society mystery? A modern morality tale?  A coming-of-age fable for a slightly more mature age?

Yes, yes, yes and yes. It’s all that, and more. Wittily written, with an openness and an unabashed sense of wonder, but also a growing realization that life doesn’t always work out the way we want it to despite the best of intentions, it’s a book that feels familiar and yet moves in unexpected directions in equal measure.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a lot of fun to read, whether or not you are a bookstore aficionado, a nerd, a lover of mystery or magic, or simply someone who appreciates an every-day hero with a well written story.  Grab a copy, sit back, and enjoy!

—Sharon Browning

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