January 4, 2016

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore


"Your life must be an open city, with all sorts of ways to wonder in. After that, the book will fade, the way all books fade in your mind. But I hope you will remember this: A man walking fast down a dark lonely street. Quick steps and hard breathing, all wonder and need. A bell above a door and the tinkle it makes. A clerk and a ladder and warm golden light, and then: the right book exactly, at exactly the right time."

Prior to reading Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, I expected to have much more to say about it than I do now having actually read it. I first discovered this book on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, nearly two years ago. It drew me in. For any bibliophile who sees a book with this title and description, sparked curiosity is only natural. I believe I was expecting a lot more from this book and perhaps it's because there's an untold bookshop story that lives inside of me that I have yet to find the words for.

I can sum up this novel in a few oppositions: old versus young, traditional knowledge versus technological knowledge, paper versus pixels. You get the idea, but the story itself is complex. In the beginning, we are introduced to Clay Jannon, a web designer, who finds employment at a strange local bookshop in San Francisco by the name of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. Once on the job, Jannon begins to notice the odd customers that enter the bookshop late at night. These odd folks are also the only customers who have access to certain books within the bookstore which are located in an area Jannon likes to call the "Waybacklist". He later learns that these books are written in code, neither he nor his friends are able to decipher its content. This is the mystery of the story. As the story progresses it is revealed that those odd customers, including the bookstore's owner Penumbra, belong to an ancient secret society going back five hundred years. The members of this secret society believe the secret to eternal life is found within the pages of these coded books left behind by their founder, Aldus Manutius. Jannon and his friends dive into the adventure of a lifetime. The objective: crack the code by any means necessary. Rule breaking and trouble is inevitable.

The story was interesting enough for me to continue to read, but it fell short of my expectations. As a matter of fact, the ending was a complete letdown. As I've mentioned already, in the story we are told that the secret to eternal life would be revealed to us after the ancient code is decoded. There was even talk about previous members of the secret society rising from the dead. This is the source of my disappointment. I don't want to say more except that if you're going to write a fictional book about an ancient code that garners the secret to immortality, you shouldn't let the readers down in the end with a ridiculous disclosure once the code is decrypted. It just didn't live up to its premise. In my opinion the vast majority of the story is in rising action which is what makes it great. The falling action and resolution was a bit weak. The main things I loved about this book were its characters, the story itself, the mystery, locations, and of course the atmosphere of being surrounded by books.