Book Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Robin Sloan is the kind of guy who could write a book like this one. He’s a writer and “media inventor” which seems to be a lofty term for “cool guy who gets the Internet and understands that discourse needs to be both intelligent and entertaining to effect any sort of meaningful social change.” He also writes a damn good intellectual thriller, if you’re into that sort of thing.

This is a book about, of all things, books. It involves a designer (named Clay, of all things) who loses is job at an odd bagel factory and begins work at an even odder bookstore in San Francisco. Mr. Penumbra’s fills an entire building and its shelves rise all the way up into the shadows that cling to the ceiling. There are plenty of books but only a few are for sale. The rest are unintelligible gibberish.

Clay works the late shift and every few days one of the store’s regular clients pops in and picks up one of the coded books. They quickly rush out and Clay notes their dress, the time of day, level of agitation, and sense of excitement in a large ledger. What these books contain, who these people are, and why he does this is part of the mystery.

Night after night he dozes at work until he’s inspired to figure out just what’s going on. The store, it seems, isn’t just a store and the strange logo – a pair of hands emerging from an open book – is the sigil of a strange cult. A few dozen pages later and Clay enlists a cute girl, a Google supercomputer, and a hyper-intelligent best friend to help him solve the mystery. The end involves men in robes, an upset CEO of a typography company, and a message from the past.

To be clear, this is no Dan Brown sweat-inducer. This is more a mental tease, a mix of Silicon Valley fun, Reddit-ist atheism, and good writing. It is, in fact, the first bit of fiction I’ve read in a long time that I’ve actually enjoyed and finished, which isn’t saying much for my intellectual vigor but says a lot for Sloan’s work.

I won’t spoil the story for you – the ending is quite beautiful if a bit rushed – but I think the end contains some of Sloan’s best writing. To wit, he closes with this simple epigram: “There is no immortality that is not built on friendship and work done with care.” Thankfully, Sloan engenders the former and exhibits the latter, a rare combination in a writer who is at home in our world.

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