Have you ever picked up a book and just known that whatever target audience the author was envisioning, it was you? You precisely, with your age, your background, your history, your knowledge. And it’s not from the sections you usually visit in the bookstore, not fantasy or science fiction, not a graphic novel either. Just plain old regular fiction.
When I was touring several bookstores the other weekend, we stopped at Unabridged, in Boystown. (Let me tell you, I had no idea that there really were enough LGBT works published to fill a quarter of the store.) While browsing around, I happened by an endcap of recommended books, by employees, I think? I wasn’t paying that much attention. What caught my eye was a white book with fluorescent yellow rectangles filling up the front, meant to represent books on shelves. Scrawled on top of that image were the words Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. I’d never heard of it, or the author Robin Sloan, but it was definitely an intriguing title. A glance at the back says the store is “curious” and I scent a mystery to be solved in one of my favorite environments. I had to buy the book.
Upon opening it up yesterday, I first began to understand how exquisitely this book was meant for me. Clay Jannon, the protagonist writing in first person, is a designer and in the first chapter he discusses fonts and drops terms like AIGA. I too am a designer, with a strong understanding of fonts, and I was a member of AIGA, the American Institute of Graphic Artists, for about six years. It looks good on your resume, among other things, and gives you access to tools and discounts that are quite useful. Oh, and he’s played Dungeons & Dragons in the past.
Now, I may not know much about coding, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to render a 3D model of anything, but aside from that and things like gender, there’s a striking number of similarities between myself and Clay. This means that I was smiling almost as soon as I started reading.
The plot begins with an unemployed Clay getting some exercise and happening upon a small, old bookstore looking to hire. He gets the job and the graveyard shift, since it is a 24-Hour Bookstore. And that’s when he starts to notice some of the more unusual aspects of the store. Between boredom and curiosity, he embarks on a life-changing journey, of which Mr. Penumbra’s is merely the gateway.
Now, because I tend not to read a lot of general fiction or nonfiction, it’s a real treat for me to enjoy a book that gets current technology right. We all text and chat and so much more every day, yet oftentimes when these things are portrayed in media (books, movies, and tv shows) they’re forced and not at all genuine. I was reading a webcomic a while back and stopped dead at one page, immediately sending it to a friend because I had never seen such a realistic text conversation in media before. It had the right mix of speed and awkwardness to sound like real people. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore uses far more than just text messages, of course, but every bit of technology felt correct in its usage and context.
I will probably have to keep Robin Sloan in mind for the future, because this was a well-balanced and well-paced mystery/adventure story by someone who has a similar background to me. I did pick up on a lot of the foreshadowing, but not in a “oh no, not this again” way. More of a “wait a minute…I get it!” The victory of solving the puzzle, not the resignation of something that was too easy to even consider a puzzle. My only disappointment is that I had hoped that a side character would turn out to be someone important. Oh well, you can’t have everything.
At least my bookshelf has a brand new prize that I am super thrilled to have read.