BOOK REVIEW: Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore (Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, #1)Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The book’s lead, Clay Jannon, takes a job as night clerk at a 24-hour bookstore, having found himself jobless in the wake of a recession that sealed the fate of the tech startup for which he’d been working. The job is easy enough, but the workplace is an enigma. It attracts few paying customers, and mostly exists to serve a regular clientele who come in to borrow very old books that aren’t for sale. Working the night-shift, and with little real work to do, Jannon starts trying to make sense of the riddle of the bookstore, and ends up neck-deep in a world of secret societies and medieval encrypted codices.

The book is an entertaining read. There are certainly things about the story that are a little too easy, such as Jannon having a circle of friends that have the perfect set of resources and capabilities to carry out the story’s arc. This allows Clay to be presented as a scrappy underdog character, but he never has to be constrained by that status because he has a wealthy friend who will buy him anything he needs and a girlfriend from Google with the chops to gain him access to unlimited computing power. All that said, the book is more fantasy than strict realism, and so this isn’t really a problem for the reader who wants to lose him- or herself in an intriguing story. It’s also true that Clay is gregarious and likable and so one can imagine him easily building friendships – though, with a notable exception, he already has these friends before the story starts. But the characters are all distinct, and generate the desired state of liking or loathing.

[When I say “fantasy,” I should clarify that while there are hints about the possibility of the supernatural, readers don’t see real evidence of it. So, it’s realism in the sense that it’s a world limited by the same constraints as ours. However, it’s a world that features a secret society, The Unbroken Spine,” that stretches back almost to the Middle Ages, and which has been striving to decode a book produced by one of the earliest printers because they believe it may hold secrets of a supernatural nature. So, it feels like an urban fantasy / down the rabbit hole kind of story though, strictly speaking, it’s not.]

I enjoyed this book. The story is gripping even if it does feature some deus ex machina Hail Marys. The characters are likable and interesting. I’d recommend it for readers who like mystery and intrigue in the stories they read.

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