Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore - Robin Sloan

Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore - Robin Sloan

So this book was promising. It's about a guy named Clay Jannon who, desperate for work, walks into a job at a seedy-looking, little-frequented 24-hour bookstore (not a euphemism). He quickly discovers that there's something a little bit odd going on as miscellaneous odd people wander in at strange hours of the night to borrow mysterious tomes filled not with words but with strings of letters in code. And, being a character in a book, he obviously decides to mess everything up by meddling.

 

For the first few pages - say forty - I was really quite enjoying Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. Clay, who narrates the book, has an amusingly sardonic voice that's nicely nerdy:

There were five different books about Richard Feynmann, but nothing at all about Albert Einstein. Thus spoke Penumbra.

 

Then, alas, it turned out that Clay is not in fact amusingly sardonic; he is just a jerk. He's arrogant; he likes to show off (witness the Big Reveal debacle at the end); he compares his girlfriend to a problem-solving computer. He also happens to be the only fully-fleshed out character in the whole novel, including said girlfriend: all the others are like cardboard cut-outs of characters - the eccentric old man, the evil Grand Master, the tall dark artistic type who can do anything. It's really quite dull.

 

The plot is, after a promising beginning, disappointingly clunky and uninteresting, and the aforesaid Big Reveal...doesn't actually make that much sense. It feels poorly thought-out, like its presence is more due to its message than any kind of useful narrative role. And the last sentence is just plain manipulative:

A clerk and a ladder and warm golden light, and then: the right book exactly, at exactly the right time.

No bookworm is going to be able to resist that sentence, no matter how terrible the rest of the book was. I still think it's a pretty awesome sentiment, but it doesn't match what actually happened. So, yeah. Emotional blackmail.

 

Why do awesome premises never come off right? This could have been an excellent book, but then they gave the job of narrating it to Clay Jannon. Goddammit.