“A clerk and a ladder and warm golden light, and then: the right book exactly, at exactly the right time.”

Clay Jannon falls into hard times when financial recession hits and he loses his job as a web designer. Struggling to make ends meet, he is moved to take just about any offer of a new job and that’s how he ends up as the night clerk at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. At first, he is impressed with the marvellous—endless—bookshelves but slowly realises that the story cannot be surviving on its meagre sales. Not to mention that when the store does get customers, they tend to borrow books from those mysterious top shelves.

Curious about what exactly goes on in the bookstore, Clay engages the help of his best friends and his new awesome girlfriend who works at Google to try and solve the puzzle of the bookstore. They discover a secret society bent on finding out the secrets of immortality. 

For all intents and purposes I should have adored Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. It features books (and more books), a 24-hour bookstore (what a delight!), puzzles, mysteries and a secret society; plus a girl genius and a relatable geeky narrator as well as a quest and meta jokes about Fantasy tropes. Unfortunately, this was, at best, a mildly entertaining yet forgettable read.     

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It’s funny because it reminded me both of a book I loved, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind (minus the politics and the ever-present sense of danger), and a book I thought was fun but disliked, i.e. Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (minus the overwhelming sense of nostalgia). Add a touch of any Dan Brown book ever written and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is more or less in a limbo between these, trying to do its own thing.

I feel like this is a story that wants to strongly support love for books (in any shape or form) but is more about the love for puzzles and code breaking. This incongruity, given the setting and the fact that characters continuously talk about books and reading, is bewildering in itself. Then you take into consideration that the eventual decoding of the main mystery is done off-page and with the help of numerous deux-ex-machina, and it’s hard to tell if the book succeeds at all.     

It does not help that most characters are purely cardboard cut-outs barely developed beyond first impressions. I know, from an intellectual point of view, that we were supposed to deeply care for Mr Penumbra himself, just like Clay did, but there was just simply not enough character complexity for it to be so.

On a more positive note, waving all that aside, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is an immensely readable, diverting book at times (especially when being all meta about Fantasy tropes with its questing heroes on their journey) and that is just enough for it not to be terrible

Yeah, I know. Damn it with faint praise.

Mr. Penumbra has been out for a couple of years in the U.S. and has received a lot of praise. I never felt like reading it until it was shortlisted in this year’s Kitschies’ Golden Tentacle Award for best debut. In case you don’t know, the Kitschies are a U.K. Award that rewards the most progressive, intelligent and entertaining works from a given year (the book was published in the U.K. in 2013). 

I can see how “entertaining” and “intelligent” apply to Mr. Penumbra but I am frankly, having a hard time seeing how it is progressive as it is such a…familiar story. That criterion is the one I am most interested in when reading a Kitschie nominated book. So, wracking my brain about this, I have concluded that a case could be made about how the way the story celebrates both the old (typography, old books) and the new (ereaders, Google and the miracles of technology) without showing either as the “better” or the “worst” could be seen as progressive. That’s my reading anyways and one of the most fun things about the Kitschies is to get involved in these conversations about what “progressive” means.      

Here are the other finalists for the Golden Tentacle Award (debut works):

  • Stray by Monica Hesse (Hot Key)
  • A Calculated Life by Anne Charnock (47 North)
  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit)
  • Nexus by Ramez Naam (Angry Robot)
  • Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (Atlantic)

I’ve read Ancillary Justice which was simply the best book I read in 2013. I am probably going to read Stray next which I hadn’t even heard of until I saw the shortlist.

As for Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, I am sad to report it barely makes the “meh” mark.

In Book Smugglerish: a deflated 5 out of 10.

Thea James and Ana Grilo are The Book Smugglers, a website for speculative fiction and YA. You can also find them on Twitter.