I had not heard of Robin Sloan before reading Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, but I absolutely adore this novel. It is quirky, fun, and it holds the reader’s attention throughout.
Sloan tells the story of Clay Jannon, laid off in the recession and left without much real-world knowledge or experience. In downtown San Francisco, Clay comes across a peculiar bookstore open 24/7 with a Hiring sign. Clay meets the (even stranger) owner, Mr. Penumbra, who greets the new night clerk with the question “What do you seek in these shelves?” Mr. Penumbra is a soft-spoken, intelligent elderly man who sells more than just bestsellers in his bookstore. There is an entire section of books in the back – which Clay refers to as the Waybacklist – books filled with strange markings not found in any known language. Customers of the Waybacklist borrow specific books and trade them out for new ones in a seemingly random manner. Along with Kat, a Google employee in data viz; Mat, a special effects artist and designer of a miniature city within their apartment; Neel, the creator of a breakthrough boob-simulation software; the peculiar Mr. Penumbra himself; and several members of the mysterious Unbroken Spine, Clay works to solve the puzzles that the bookstore, and possible secret cult, hide.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a quirky, intelligent story with twists and turns that will keep a reader intrigued. The lovely and curious characters in Sloan’s novel all have different motives for wanting to crack the code to Aldus Manutius’s oldest book, but Clay is the most surprising. A once down-on-his-luck and cynical clerk, Clay becomes a motivated and knowledge-thirsty follower of the great Penumbra.
I adore the witty voice of Clay Jannon and the oddly talented cast of characters. Though a simple book, the story is brilliant and the final lines will leave you feeling all warm and fuzzy.
I would recommend it to readers that enjoy fantasy stories (though this is not a fantasy, there are many aspects of it that remind me of such books, as well as allusions to fantasies), an easy read, or a book that will make you laugh out loud.