Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a smart, playful romp that begins in a musty secondhand bookstore in San Francisco then weaves through time and place, with stops at a book-worshipping cult in ancient Egypt (probably imagined by the author), a cavernous library hidden underneath 5th Avenue in New York (possibly imagined by the author), and the Google campus in California (not). Our hero, a young man of wit and substance but meager means, solves a centuries-old mystery with the off-the-books help of his new girlfriend, a “beautiful late-night hacker girl” and Google employee. He also learns that the mystery they solved might have dimensions greater than those he initially perceived. Were they asking the right question after all? Was it possible that those who had come before them – in the benighted, pre-digital age – were seeking something more profound?
Author Robin Sloan hooked me early on, when our hero is pounding the pavement looking for a job and happens upon a HELP WANTED sign in the window of an old building. Here he is, entering the store: “I pushed the bookstore’s glass door. It made a bell tinkle brightly up above, and I stepped slowly through. I did not realize at the time what an important threshold I had just crossed. Inside: imagine the shape and volume of a normal bookstore turned up on its side. This place was absurdly narrow and dizzyingly tall, and the shelves went all the way up – three stories of books, maybe more…The shelves were packed close together, and it felt like I was standing at the border of a forest – not a friendly California forest, either, but an old Transylvanian forest, a forest full of wolves and witches and dagger-wielding bandits all waiting just beyond moonlight’s reach.” The air of magic and mystery in the place is so thick you can hardly breathe. You want to walk through that door, just as you once wished to push past the long fur coats in the wardrobe.
Our hero also charmed me early with his adorable, youthful asides. When his love interest walks through the door of the store for the first time, you can just see his mouth hanging open: “It’s a girl. She’s leaning halfway into the store, and she’s looking at me, and she’s saying, “Are you open?” Why, yes, girl with chestnut hair cropped to your chin and a red T-shirt with the word BAM! printed in mustard yellow – yes, as a matter of fact, we are.”
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore has something of Harry Potter’s world about it: mysterious things hidden in plain view, dark magic, a wizened, wizardly authority figure, arduous challenges for the hero and his friends, and – most importantly – a young man in the process of growing up. The plot might have a few convenient turns, but they are nothing to fret about compared to the book’s delightful virtues: its wit, its cleverness, and its sheer fun. If you need one more slice of bacon on vacation, you’ll find it on the shelves of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore!