Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

It’s American author Robin Sloan’s first novel, which landed on several best-of lists in 2012 including the New York Times Editor’s Choice and NPR’s Hardcover Fiction Bestseller List. It was even named one of the 25 best book covers for 2012 by BookPage because of its cover that glows in the dark.

My expectations were low when I picked up this book. I had read several less than rave reviews about it. The glow in the dark book cover smelled like a gimmick. The book’s website, the Twitter account and so on, all felt like fluff for what would undoubtedly be a letdown. But it did have some circles in the tech community buzzing. And when my father made a personal recommendation for it, I decided to give it a read.

The story is one of mystery and adventure. Set in modern San Francisco, it’s well-woven with the expected tech-related buzzwords—from Google to Ruby, smartphones to the singularity. The plot follows a web-designer fallen on hard times, Clay, as he juggles a job as a clerk in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (which is anything but a traditional bookstore) and a relationship with a girl named Kat, who works for Google. The mystery is one where old-school and new-school technologies collide, revealing the secrets a typeface called Gerritszoon has kept hidden for centuries.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore wasn’t the best book I’ve ever read, but it didn’t really disappoint either. It was an easy read. The storyline was interesting enough to keep me flipping the pages at a good speed. There were times that the story seemed unnatural, unbelieveable or overly coincidental, but it is a fantasy novel, so that’s to be expected I guess. The ending was anticlimactic, which is a shame. It builds really good momentum, but right when you get to the point where you think something spectacular is going to happen it dulls to complete predictability. As for the characters, they were all interesting, if only because they lack any real development and leave you wondering about them. At least the romantic sub-plot never dominates the story itself.

If you’re a typographer, you’ll probably love this story. If you’re a web designer, developer or consider yourself a tech junkie, you’ll probably also find Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore an enjoyable read. Beyond that, I’m not sure. The story is a bit contrived and some references might be too obscure. But then again, I can’t remember the last time I met someone who didn’t consider themselves a tech junkie.

So, if for no other reason than to encourage Robin Sloan not to quit his day job and keep writing, pick up a copy of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and have a little fun. I’d love to hear what you think of it.

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