Have you ever felt the need to read? Been struck by the siren song of an awesome novel?
If you have—and I warrant we (you, reading this, and me) are well acquainted with this wonderful weakness—if you have, you’ll know that it’s one thing to want a book, and another to need one; to feel with every fibre of your being that you cannot be complete until you have swallowed the whole of some story.
For Clay Jannon, in his youth, the concluding volume of The Dragon-Song Chronicles fit the bill above, but in the years since the climax of said fantasy saga, he hasn’t felt so intensely about anything else. Not a book, not a woman, not a job—not nothing. Down on his luck at the outset of Robin Sloan’s endearing if digressive debut, and hoping, perhaps, to recapture some of that passion, he applies for a job in a small bookshop in the Broadway district of San Francisco.
And that’s all it takes. From the moment Clay crosses the threshold of Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, life is suddenly interesting again.
Inside: imagine the shape and volume of a normal bookstore turned up on its side. This place was absurdly narrow and dizzyingly tall, and the shelves went all the way up—three stories of books, maybe more. I craned my neck back [...] and the shelves faded smoothly into the shadows in a way that suggested they might go on forever.
In part, this puzzling new perspective rallies his passion—his need, indeed. And it isn’t long before Clay realises there’s something funny going on when it comes to Mr Penumbra’s customers. That said, it’s a stretch to even call them customers, because they don’t buy books from the front of the store: rather, they rent them from its mysterious rear.
Clay’s first thought is that these folks are part of an arcane lending library, and soon his curiosity gets the better of him: he breaks the first rule of this unusual book club, and looks at one of the musty old tomes. He doesn’t find a story, but a code... and down the rabbit hole he goes!
What unfolds is a magnificent mystery, initially. An investigation into what Clay christens the Waybacklist and the readers evidently addicted to it. It isn’t to give the game away to say they’re actually code-crackers: initiates of an ancient order dedicated to the study of a puzzle which has gone unsolved for many centuries. Their promised reward for finally figuring out this riddle? No less than life eternal.
To followers of the order, this is practically “catnip: a code to be cracked and the key to immortality, all in one,” though Clay is less than convinced by its supernatural aspect:
“I don’t believe the immortality part, but I do know the feeling that Penumbra is talking about. Walking the stacks in a library, dragging your fingers across the spines—it’s hard not to feel the presence of sleeping spirits. That’s just a feeling, not a fact, but remember (I repeat): people believe weirder things than this.”
Which, sure, is true.
But Clay, needless to say, is a child of our time. The only things he really has faith in are his mobile phone and his MacBook, so of course he cannot resist applying contemporary tech to the old code Penumbra has dedicated his days to deciphering. This ambitious endeavour leads him to cross paths with Kat, who works for Google, and has at her fingertips resources equivalent to many million like minds.
I’m afraid this is where Sloan’s first novel loses the larger part of its pull, because as soon as Google gets a look in, the narrative practically collapses. To a certain extent, the corporation’s involvement helps to situate to the strange amongst the true, lending credibility to the story’s more incredible elements, but the trade-off is just too much. With every passing chapter, the central mystery becomes less magnetic.
Like The Shadow of the Wind, to which this text bears a deceptive resemblance, Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is at its very best when it taps into our love of literature—and at its very best, it is as remarkable a novel as Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s first for adult audiences: a cryptic diptych, equally smart and sweet, warm and honest, esoteric, intriguing, and wonderfully witty.
Sadly, Sloan struggles to sustain the most effective elements of his debut, indulging instead in lengthy love letters to the aforementioned gods of tomorrow’s technology—among a number of less distracting digressions. That said, these occur so often, and over the course of such a short novel, that an alarming proportion of the whole seems composed of packing peanuts; a miscellany of meaningless material that serves solely to pad out the plot of the laconic Kindle single I was unsurprised, ultimately, to learn Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore began as.
I wanted to love Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and admittedly, there were bits of it I did, gathered around the outset especially. Additionally, Clay is a great narrator, and most of the story’s supporting characters — Ajax and Kat and Mat—are as winning as him. The narrative, however, simply lacks substance... except, I suppose, as an ode to the enduring beauty of Google. And that’s not what I come to my speculative fiction for, frankly.
Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore is available now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com, where he contributes a weekly column concerned with news and new releases in the UK called the British Genre Fiction Focus, and co-curates the Short Fiction Spotlight. On occasion he’s been seen to tweet, twoo.