Review Blog

Oct 22 2012

Mr Penumbra's 24-hour bookstore by Robin Sloan

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Farrar Straus Giroux, 2012. ISBN 0374214913.
This novel is written about and perhaps for Gen Y readers. Traditional fantasy quest meets the digital age, and something more human than either, the power of friendship, wins out. Hipster Clay Jannon rarely touches paper until retrenched, despite winning a design award, and taking a job in a shop selling what seems to be books. Clay works the night shift catering to borrowers rather than customers, borrowers who request their volumes by shelf placement in the Waybacklist rather than author or subject. Clay's friends are successful digitocrats, Neel who designs pixilated breasts, or 'boob simulation software', Kat who is a Google worker and uncritical believer in the power of technology, and Matt, the maker of artifacts. Clay's employer, Mr Penumbra, forbids him to read the books on the Waybacklist and so of course Clay starts examining them to find they are a code linked to their place on the shelves. Urged on by Kat and using the resources of Google, Clay, a fantasy reader from childhood, becomes a quester. He builds an online data visualization of the movements of the borrowers and discovers they are all members of the Unbroken Spine society funded by the Festina lente company whose aim is to discover the secret of immortality recorded somewhere by the medieval philosopher Manutius. The action shifts to New York where the society meets in secret and is directed by the sinister Corvina, once friend but now enemy of the genial Penumbra. Clay builds a paper scanner and secretly digitizes the key work of Manutius. Kat, now on Google's management team, Clay's girlfriend and determined to eliminate mortality, throws the power of all its technology into the task of solving the riddle. Google fails. Clay turns back to Old Knowledge. He learns that the author of his favourite fantasy series was once a member of the Unbroken Spine society but was expelled. When Clay listens to the series on tape he realizes that he is listening to clues about where the message is hidden. In a neat twist he finds the message and delivers it to the society. The answer is a victory for humanity over the machine. Immortality is a dream; friendship is what should be sought. Clay loses Kat but gains more friends and establishes a career with Mr Penumbra in both digital and print publications.
The writing is witty, the plot intriguing. It flags a little three-quarters through but picks up again to finish triumphantly. The novel is about balance, about the incredible power of the digital world, but also about the need for mystery and about the need for friends.
Jenny Hamilton

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