January 15, 2013

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore


Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore meets square at the intersection of the Internet and actual books.  Clay Jannon, our protagonist, finds himself out of a job when the company he works on web design for goes under.  At first, he spends a lot of time looking online for jobs, but finds himself easily distracted by various articles and other Internet-based amusements.

So he starts looking for a job old-school: he prints off the classifieds, and then he walks around San Francisco to see what's available.  What catches is attention is a bookstore simply called Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, which seemingly lives up to his moniker.  He gets hired as the night clerk for the bookstore.

Immediately he notices there are, in fact, two bookstores: the first, upfront, features books that the every day reader would like to read.  In the back, what he calls the Wayback List, are tall stacks of shelves that seem to be encoded in some fashion.  Part of his job is to record in a logbook whenever someone asks for those books: not only which they asked for, but more importantly, what those people were like.  What were they wearing, what was their state of mind?

Anyhow, Clay quickly realizes these people are solving a puzzle.  With the help of Kat Potente (one of my new favoritely last-named character) a girl who works at Google and wears only red t-shirts that say Bam!, he creates a model of the bookstore and ends up solving the puzzle in a day.

This convinces Mr. Penumbra that books and computers can indeed mesh.  And since the bookstore puzzle is just one part of a three-tiered puzzle that the Fellowship of the Unbroken Spine believes will perhaps ultimately lead to eternal life...it's kind of a big deal.  Except that Penumbra's boss doesn't believe that computers can help to solve the ultimate puzzle.

While I immensely enjoyed this book, I don't know that I'm its ideal audience: some of the computer-based information flies over my head a little bit, although a fair amount of it seems remarkably grounded.  (I'm assuming that's like because Sloan's familiar with this crossroads and knows how to explain book stuff to computer people and computer stuff to book people.)

It's cryptic, it's a little odd, but it has protagonists that you can't help rooting for in spite of and sometimes because of their past successes and failures.  And their past reading lives.

Expect to become a little bit enthralled with both computers and Mr. Penumbra's bookstore...and don't be surprised if some of the ultimate answers come from a fictional fantasy trilogy.  (Which I honestly wish there had been more of in terms of book-within-a-book, but I understand that wasn't the construct at work here.)

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