It's very rare that a book comes along which ticks all of your boxes at once. When it does, it's a magical experience. With Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, debut author Robin Sloan reduced me to a grinning school kid within the first ten pages. By the (all-too-short) time I reached the climax, delight had been piled upon delight until I couldn't take any more. If you share any of my love for books, technology, eclectic intellectual pursuits and good old-fashioned quest stories then dive in with me.
Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore takes place in a near-future
Inquiring inside he meets the titular owner and all-round character, Mr Penumbra. After a bizarrely brief interview, Clay finds himself manning the store for the graveyard shift. It goes without saying that Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is no Waterstone's. Customers are rarer than Bigfoot sightings, and almost as likely as a Sasquatch to actually buy anything. Those who do arrive with a purpose do not hand over cash. They belong to a mysterious club, exchanging one title for another. The titles in question are stored in the dizzying heights of the shop's 30-ft high shelves, out of sight of casual browsers.
Clay's unusual job description requires him to log the mysterious guests' visits – times, behaviour, appearance, books requested – and not to peer inside any of their tomes. However it's not long before his curiosity gets the better of him and he finds himself caught up in the proceedings of a bizarre secret society. With the aid of his friends – an artist working for ILM, a Google techie and a specialist in creating perfect CGI breasts – he's soon racing the cult to their ultimate goal. Somewhere in the shelves lies the secret of immortality, deposited there by Aldus Manutius, one of the real-life originators of the modern publishing system.
What follows is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through not only the streets of
Set in stark contrast to this, the action is aided by the vast computing resources of
It would be all too easy to compare Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore to several recent conspiracy-themed blockbusters, notably the execrable Dan Brown canon. However Robin Sloan's quest for 'truth' mercifully does not take itself the slightest bit seriously. It's more reminiscent of a literary game, playing with genre tropes and throwing the reader off on mental wild goose chases for the sheer fun of it. Sloan's extensive knowledge of the history, present and future of both traditional and electronic publishing is as informative as it is entertaining – do you know what a hadoop is? You soon will. This never turns into information overload though, the story remaining perfectly balanced between exposition and action so as to keep you glued to every page. In fact the only thing wrong with this book is that it is over all too soon, the action all wrapped up in a movie-style epilogue barely after I had opened it.
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