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

  • Title: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
  • Author: Robin Sloan
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Year Published: 2012
  • ISBN: 0374214913
  • List Price: $25.00
  • Page Count: 304
  • Age Range: 15+
  • Genre: magical realism
  • Award(s): Alex Award Winner

Author information: This is Sloan’s debut novel. His website is fairly sparse, but it does include a short biography, a link to information about Mr. Penumbra, a link to sign up for his email newsletter, as well as a variety of short pieces (articles, short stories, etc) that fans can read online. Mother Jones interviewd Sloan about his debut novel, and the interview discusses such topics as D&D, San Francisco, the inspiration for Neel, Clay, and The Dragonsong Chronicles, and the theme of immortality. The interview also talks about Sloan’s writing process and his use of the app, Freedom (which is an Internet blocker so that he cannot access distracting websites while he’s writing), which he credits with being able to finish his book.

Reviews: It was difficult to find reviews of this title from traditional sources. Publisher’s Weekly reviewed the title, but didn’t provide much more than a synopsis of the plot and a comment on its happy ending. Other sources, like NPR, Newsweek, and the San Francisco Chronicle, were more effusive. They all comment upon Sloan’s ability to weave a traditional quest narrative seamlessly with a modern day techno-world, incorporating elements of Google and elements of centuries old secret societies side by side. Entertainment Weekly sums Sloan’s novel up thus:  “Sloan grounds his jigsawlike plot with Big Ideas about the quest for permanence in the digital age”.

Readers annotation: When Clay got a job at a bookstore, he didn’t realize he would be thrown into a world of secret societies, conspiracies, and the opportunity to discover the meaning of life.

Summary: Clay is laid off from his job, and, in a fit of desperation, takes the night shift at a shady 24-hour bookstore. He notices that most of the customers that come in are borrowing titles from the “waybacklist”, a collection of books that are not sold, but borrowed. His curiosity piqued, Clay discovers that these people are members of a secret society devoted to finding the secret of immortality. This quest takes him and his friends everywhere from the Google campus to a secret reading room in New York City. Eventually, Clay is able to decipher the original text written by Manutius, the founder of this secret sect, and he discovers that it does not contain an easy answer to the question of immortality. Rather, it suggests that the only way to become immortal is by living on through the work you do when you are alive.

Evaluation: I have incredibly mixed feelings about this title–moreso than I think I’ve had about any of the other books I’ve reviewed. I loved the conceit. Setting a quest narrative in modern day San Francisco and incorporating so many aspects of technology is brilliant and sure to attract readers looking for a fresh take on the fantasy novel. Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore and Mr. Penumbra himself are incredibly likable and the reader is immediately drawn into their world. The storyline–that Mr. Penumbra is a foward-thinker who, with the help of Clay and friends, might be able to finally solve the mystery of Manutius if the villainous leader of the secret society weren’t trying to thwart their efforts, is compelling and readers will eagerly follow this story wherever it is going. The difficulty with this book is that the plot deteriorates from there. Clay eventually does find the way to decode Manutius’ pivotal text, but discovers that there are no secrets hidden within his story. The novel ends with the suggestion that true immortality comes from the friendships and bonds we build in this life, as well as the works we accomplish. This ending is a letdown for readers who expected a bit of a flashier ending. Although I did not expect that the characters would unlock the key to immortality, I was hoping for something less trite than “friendship is the most important thing”. I admire Sloan for the scope of this novel, but feel that at times the focus became scattered and the payoff at the end was disappointing. I do see the appeal this title would have to a teenage audience though; most of the characters are tech savvy young adventurers, which many teens will identify with.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 3/5 A fun blend of high fantasy and high tech, this novel breathes new life into the fantasy genre in light of all of our technological achievements. The premise is strong, but the narrative wanders and the ending leaves much to be desired.
  • Popularity4/5  The mixing of high fantasy and high tech, modern and ancient, digital and analog, is sure to delight readers, and one look at Penumbra’s bookstore will hook them.
  • Appeal factors: magical realism, technology, bookstores, secret societies, Google.

Read-alikes: 

  1.  The Magicians by Lev Grossman might be a good fit for readers who enjoyed the juxtaposition of high fantasy with an urban setting. Like Clay, Quentin Coldwater doesn’t believe in magic until he’s accepted into a magical and sinister school. Combining common tropes and ideas from childhood fantasy classics, this book is a modern-day fantasy for sophisticated readers.
  2. Readers who liked the magical realism aspect of Sloan’s novel may enjoy The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. Like Sloan’s book, this title’s use of magic lets the reader decide whether or not it is real, and incorporates serious themes such as growing up, loss, and destiny.

Book talk ideas: The best way to book talk this title would be by describing Mr. Penumbra’s store. Tell potential readers to imagine that they’re going to San Francisco for the day, and after they’ve done all their shopping and sight-seeing and wandering, they discover a small, hole-in-the-wall bookstore. It claims to be open 24 hours a day, and when you walk in, the shelves are so high that you need a ladder to reach the books at the top. After describing this scene, give a bit of plot details and explain how Clay ends up working there and discovers that there’s more to the little bookstore than meets the eye, and this discovery sends him on a hunt that takes him everywhere from the Google campus to a hidden underground reading room.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Clay assigns his friends archetypes for their “quest” (wizard, rogue, etc.). Why do you think he does this?
  2. How do you think the high-tech/low-tech interplay worked in the novel? What do you think this says about the relationship of the two in real life.
  3. Do you agree with Clay’s assertion at the end of the book, that creating lasting works and relationships are the key to immortality? Why or why not?

Reason for reading: As mentioned in a previous review, I was interested in looking at Alex award winners and seeing why they were chosen as having appeal to a young adult audience. The title of this book intrigued me (what aspiring librarian isn’t immediately taken with the prospect of a hole-in-the-wall, more-than-it-seems, 24-hour bookstore?) and I decided it would be a great way to round out my reviews for this class.

Additional relevant information: Mr. Penumbra grew out of a short story that Sloan had written, and is available on his website. He also wrote a short story to coincide with the paperback release of the novel, following Ajax Penumbra and how he came to find the bookstore that he owns when Clay finds him. This story is available on a variety of platforms, but can be purchased on Amazon for $2.99.

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