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

First things first:

1. You know those libraries and bookstores that have the rolling ladders? I am scared silly of heights and avoid ladders as a rule, but I would trade any one of you nice people for one of those libraries. It ain’t even personal. I reckon most of you completely agree.

2. I love puzzles. Word puzzles particularly, and word puzzle games, and arcane mysterious puzzles that hint at immortality and history and secrecy and shrouds and cabals. Double points if there’s candlelight involved, and heaven help me if there’s an initiation rite. This doesn’t tend to manifest itself much in my average day, though, so I have to rely on books to scratch that itch.

And that’s where Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore comes in.

Mr Penumbra


I picked up this book initially because Moon Man and I had gone on a nice date to the bookstore (by which I mostly mean we went there together then split off to pursue our own interests), and it was sitting on a table of staff recommendations. The title intrigued me, and the blurb on the back piqued my interest, so I took a chance and bought it.

For the record: sometimes taking a chance is a very, very good idea.

The premise of Mr. Penumbra is that our protagonist, Clay Johnson, has recently lost his job and needs a new one, so he stops in at a bookstore with a “help wanted” sign on the window. He’s hired on the spot, and learns within a few days that while nobody ever seems to buy anything at this particular bookstore, there’s a brisk set of regular “customers” who come in, borrow books from the massive “Waybacklist” (a three-story collection of arcane old tomes–that’s where the droolworthy rolling ladders come into play), and dash back out on some unclear but apparently critically urgent quest. So Clay, being a curious sort of lad, decides to try to figure out what they’re up to…

…And I’ve tried to end that sentence three times now without sounding like the cheesiest reviewer in the entire history of ever, and am failing miserably, so I’ll just cave in and roll with it: Clay, being a curious sort of lad, decides to try to figure out what they’re up to, and is swept into a world of secret fellowships, centuries-old mysteries, complex and as-yet-unbroken codes, and the search for immortality.

(Sorry about that. It’s just…well, I mean, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, sooner or later you’re going to have to say “duck”.)

Here’s what it comes down to: try, if you will, to imagine the intersection of S.Ready Player One, and The DaVinci CodeS. will bring its mysteriousness and academia, the idea of research and scholarship for its own sake, and the deep-rooted intertwining of the author and the work. Ready Player One will donate its humor, quirkiness, questing adventurousness, and the charming side of Mr. Penumbra’s character; and The DaVinci Code will toss in a dash of darkness, a bunch of secrecy, a heap of history, and a few really-rather-more-clever-than-they-probably-should-be characters.

And then sit in that intersection and talk for a while with some ultra-passionate bibliophiles about how technology and a gut-level love of dusty old books can share space in this world, whether Google and Gutenberg can ever really be friends, and (just for kicks) where you can find a really good falafel in this town.

That, kids, is Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, in something as close to a nutshell as a book like this can really get.

At least, that’s the good side of it.

The bad side is that for all its discussion of ciphers and codes and mysterious tomes, we never get to see any of them. Any. We don’t get any blocks of text, we don’t get any excerpts, we don’t even get an illustration of the covers. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. And to be super-honest with you, I found that spectacularly frustrating–it’s like reading a play-by-play description of someone else working a crossword puzzle without ever seeing a single clue or hearing what any of the solution words are. It was maddening, and I kinda wanted to shake Sloan for it.

I mean, sure, to be fair, we’re talking about a three-story bookstore full of these volumes, each with its own cipher to solve, so it’s pretty unreasonable to ask to be given a complete copy of all the referenced works. But really, would it have so unthinkable to include a fragment from one of them? A scrap? Anything?


We do get one bit from one text, but it’s…well, I don’t want to be spoiler-y. I’ll just say it’s in plain English, and I had caught onto it and started its deciphering before our protagonist had pieced together that there was any deciphering to be done with it. C’mon, man, give me something I can sink my teeth into. Yeesh.

I also thought the big reveal and the climax were a little bit of a letdown–they weren’t bad, just not quite as epic as I was ready for–so that’s a bit of a bummer. Not a crisis by any means, just…y’know, amazingly delicious plain cheesecake when the guy at the next table is having an extravagant two-story-tall sugar sculpture that took three chefs to carry out from the kitchen. It’s tasty, but you can’t help wishing yours had more blown-sugar swans.

So the takeaway here is that this is a fantastic book, absolutely delightful, well worth a read and probably a re-read…but I’ll tell you now that you can put away your notepads and your pencils, because all the mysteries are solved off-screen without our getting to see the clues. And if you’re just in it for the story, that is plenty. But if, like me, you’re actually hoping to do a bit of amateur codebreaking yourself…well, anyone wanna go in together on a three-story bookstore with rolling ladders? You have to be in charge of the climbing.

TL;DR: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is quirky and humorous, dark and creepy, mysterious and arcane, and sits satisfyingly in the intersection of S.Ready Player One, and The DaVinci Code. Plus it makes you spend some time searching your soul for your own thoughts on the nature of immortality, the role of physical bookstores in the modern age, and where technology has taken/is taking us.

Rating: 8.75 Muddy Hoofprints. It lost a star for being a book about puzzles that doesn’t include any actual puzzles, and another quarter star for a slightly lackluster climax…but fully earned every twinkling facet of the remaining 8.75.


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