One of my colleagues and I were looking over the cart of ARCs when I pulled this from the shelf. “Sounds too magical-realist,” she said doubtfully. I was still intrigued by the title, and decided to give it a few pages. I took it home and immediately plunged into Clay Jannon’s world, which Robin Sloan writes with anything but magical realism.
Clay’s career is stuck in neutral, a bad place to be in cutting-edge San Francisco’s Web-design world. Along about the time the last of his savings is headed to pay the rent, Clay is desperate enough to take anything. A sign in the window of a dim little shop (overshadowed by the neon of the strip club next door) advertises “Help Wanted,” and Clay enters Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.
If the store is surviving on actual, you know, book sales, Clay can’t tell it. Working the overnight shift, he rarely has any customers except a girl from the club dropping in for the latest bestseller, which Mr. Penumbra doesn’t stock. What he has, in his queerly shaped store, are tall shelves packed with volumes written in languages and letters Clay can’t decipher. Odd people sometimes duck in to pick up select volumes and duck back out after putting them on their special accounts.
With nothing much to do overnight, Clay starts building a virtual copy of the Bookstore to aid him in finding stuff from the collection. Then he starts adding data from past circulations and finds a pattern that amazes him and astonishes Mr. Penumbra. His discovery leads to another, and another, and the whole chain of discoveries leads Clay right back to the place he really started.
Sloan does a great job with the characters, from the friends who support and encourage Clay to the avuncular Mr. Penumbra. The characters play off one another, co-operating and offering their skills as Clay carries out his quest. But it’s the idea behind the story that really intrigued me—that there’s an exciting new frontier at the intersection of print and technology, and that advocates of both need to remember it. And even if writing about books on a blog is only building a little cabin on the edge of that frontier, well, that’s enough for me right now.
Check the WRL catalog for Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore