April 7, 2015

Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

“My name is Clay Jannon and those were the days when I rarely touched paper.” 
Meet Mr. Jannon, an ex web-designer as “a result of the great food-chain contraction that swept through America in the early twenty-first century”. Jannon lost his job at the NewBagel and now he is struggling to find a new job. His depression leads him to the 24-hour bookstore; Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Jannon describes the bookstore as “absurdly narrow and dizzyingly tall, and the shelves went all the way up- three stories of books, maybe more”.

He met Mr. Penumbra, a tall and skinny old man with blue eyes that match the blue sweater he wore that first day Jannon met him. When Penumbra asked him about a book he loves, Jannon immediately mentioned The Dragon-Song Chronicles- the book he has read three times since he was obsessed with it back in sixth grade (and the very same book that would help him throughout his adventure). So then meet Mr. Jannon, the night clerk at Penumbra’s.

He soon discovers that the store is more curious than either its name or its gnomic owner might suggest. The customers are less than few and none of them seem to buy anything- instead, every time the bell above the door tinkles, they “check out” large, obscure volumes from the Waybacklist at the strange corners of the store. And as if just to trigger his curiosity even more, there is an unusual logbook Jannon has to take care during his shift. The logbook contains the detail of the members of the store who come to visit to borrow certain books, along with the detail on their appearances. (To be honest, at this moment I was expecting something like The Night at the Museum where all the characters of the books come to live, but nah!)

Mat (his roommate) was the one who encourages Jannon to open the book from the Waybacklist for the first time. Surprisingly, the books contain solid matrix of letters- an undifferentiated jumble. The next day, Jannon’s long-term best friend who was bounded by The Dragon-Song Chronicles, Neel Shah, came to visit the store. He told Neel the whole story about the store and soon they were bounded again by the upcoming adventure that is waiting for them open-handed. Jannon real adventure was actually started after he met Kat Potente, a beautiful Googler he wanted to impress. He develops an analysis of the clientele’s behavior and, with a little help from Kat and Mat, he recognizes that the borrowing-pattern of the books in the Waybacklist form a face- the Founder’s face.

He didn’t realize what he has crossed at the time. The adventure leads Jannon, Kat and Neel to another bookstore on the Fifth Avenue, facing Central Park, just down the street from the Guggenheim. Another unusual bookstore I would say; the house of the Unbroken Spine who was founded by Aldus Manutius five hundred years ago. The fellowship members have worked for centuries to unlock his codex vitae that is believed to contain the secret to eternal life. (I was changing my expectation to more like Lara Croft- my imagination knows no bound!)

For the rest of the story, Jannon, with the help from his variously talented friends, works hard to decode Aldus Manutius’s codex vitae. Undoubtedly, it doesn’t contain the secret to eternal life (Ya, duh!). As I told you before, the book The Dragon-Song Chronicles helps him to solve everything, but don’t worry I will not spoil the entire story. Grab the book and spoil it yourself!

I would say that Robin Sloan is brilliant. The novel delivers fresh adventure and imagination. He brings both papers and computers in the story- two worlds that seem wide apart today. He uses libraries, bookstores, museums and ancient books to drag us back to the time when publishing companies were as cool as Internet provider companies in our modern society. In the same time, he uses high-tech, beyond imagination technologies that we never knew existed. He creates the world in which paper and computer walk side by side. He talks about history, present and future in a passionate way.

Though, too good to be true- he decided to make the characters and the stories of the book relate one to another. Jannon’s adventure might be long, but it is not that challenging (at least for me) since snap-there’s a clue, snap-there’s a friend to help, snap-there’s an audiobook to hear. I mean, I know that sometime the biggest mystery of life lies in the plain sight, but it shouldn’t be that plain. People have worked for centuries to break the code, at least Jannon should struggle a little bit more. I think it would be best if Sloan breaks the novel into a chronicle. Well, it’s just a plain suggestion tho.

Let me quote Sloan’s brilliant closing: 
“There is no immortality that is not built on friendship and work done with care. All the secrets in the world worth knowing are hiding in plain sight. It takes forty-one seconds to climb a ladder three stories tall. It’s not easy to imagine the year 3012, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. We have new capabilities now- strange powers we’re still getting used to. The mountains are a message from Aldrag the Wyrm-Father. Your life must be an open city, with all sorts of ways to wonder in.”

Rate: 9/10

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