Reviewed by Kristin
Robin Sloan’s debut novel gives the reader a feel of actually entering an tall, narrow San Francisco bookstore, a bit dusty, an ancient computer sitting on the desk, an older bookseller in a button-down and cardigan appearing from the shadows. Taller than they are wide, the shelves range upwards to dizzying heights. Ladders climb upward to the ceiling for staff access to the books.
When Clay Jannon spies the help wanted sign in the window, he is a bit suspicious. Who puts up actual signs anymore? Isn’t that what Craigslist is for? But Clay is desperate for a job after his marketing design job with the Old Jerusalem Bagel Company (formerly NewBagel, founded by ex-Google employees, who as it turned out were better at software than breakfast foods) flopped, along with the rest of the company.
Clay soon is wondering how in the world the bookstore stays afloat, as he is doing well to sell a single book per night. The eccentric individuals who scurry into the store seem to be “members” rather than customers, borrowing cryptic tomes from the upper reaches of the shelves. Mr. Penumbra has only three requirements: Clay must always be there to work exactly 10:00 pm to 6:00 am. He may not read the special volumes. And he must keep very detailed records of all customer interactions. Not just what they buy, but also how they are dressed, down to the buttons, and what is their apparent state of mind.
Filled with intriguing characters, this is so much more than a book about a bookstore. From Mr. Penumbra’s dimly lit rows to the crystal city of the Google complex to a secret society in New York City, Clay ends up on an intricately plotted adventure that he never would have imagined as he happened upon that help wanted sign. As Clay continued deeper into his quest, I was rooting him on from the sidelines, or should I say from the printed page. The story drew me along, making me want to read just one more page, one more chapter (…the curse of book lovers who have other less exciting, mundane responsibilities.)
After reading the book, I discovered that it grew from a short story originally published on Sloan’s website, www.robinsloan.com. (Warning: spoilers in the short story! If you are intrigued by the book, be sure to go back and read the story afterwards.) Also, there is a later published prequel that builds the foundations: Ajax Penumbra 1969.