Review: Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

UK book cover of Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

I bought this on a shopping trip with Ellie, who has mocked me ever since for whipping it out from under her nose in Waterstones. Actually, her nose was at the other end of the store and it’s her own fault for turning right instead of left, but I figured I’d better get it read anyway. For all I know she might turn up tomorrow and ‘steal’ it back!

Plot summary: Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon out of his life as a Web-design drone and serendipity coupled with sheer curiosity has landed him a new job working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. And it doesn’t take long for Clay to realize that the quiet, dusty book emporium is even more curious than the name suggests. There are only a few fanatically committed customers, but they never seem to actually buy anything, instead they simply borrow impossibly obscure volumes perched on dangerously high shelves, all according to some elaborate arrangement with the eccentric proprietor. The store must be a front for something larger, Clay concludes, and soon he has plugged in his laptop, roped in his friends (and a cute girl who works for Google) and embarked on a high-tech analysis of the customers’ behaviour. What they discover is an ancient secret that can only be solved by modern means, and a global-conspiracy guarded by Mr. Penumbra himself… who has mysteriously disappeared.

This is… not what I expected.

I really enjoyed Mr Penumbra’s… to begin with. It has a casual, chatty tone that I always love in books – it feels like the book is talking to you and I can really settle in, ready to listen. There are some wonderful paragraphs and I could sit here all day and type out interesting quotes to you. Clay, the main character, loves books but he’s also teaching himself how to program, and it’s an interesting mix that works really well. Books about books are always interesting and the quirky twist was an added bonus.

When the ‘twist’ started to show itself though… yeah, it wasn’t great. It’s very difficult to follow and I’m not positive I could explain it to you now. I’m not sure if I’m stupid or whether I missed something, but there were certain obvious questions about the workings of the bookshop/concept/mystery that the book didn’t even try to explain. How does one book lead to another? How do they break the code? What do they end up writing about? SO MANY QUESTIONS. 

I don’t always mind this in a book when you’re meant to come away with questions, but I really don’t think it was intentional here. I’m just confused and baffled.

There is no immortality that is not built on friendship and work done with care. All the secrets in the world worth knowing are hiding in plain sight. It takes forty-one seconds to climb a ladder three stories tall. It’s not easy to imagine the year 3012, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. We have new capabilities now – strange powers we’re still getting used to. Your life must be an open city, with all sorts of ways to wander in. 

Also, what’s with the really heavy emphasis on Google? I don’t know if Robin Sloan used to work for them or what, but it reads as though they paid her to big them up wherever she could. The company is integral to the plot as they strive to help Clay uncover the mystery, using their vast resources to benefit mankind. Please, please, just stop. There’s a ridiculous amount of detail about their hierarchy, projects, vision, etc, and it’s just too much.

I’m not fond of Clay himself either really – I know I’ve complained before about characters who instantly and automatically believe everything they’re told (‘Huh. Vampires are real. Cool.’), but this is too far in the opposite direction. He just won’t stop bleating about how he ‘doesn’t believe in this religion’ and how it’s so obviously just a cult. WE GET IT. DESIST PLEASE.
Just one last thing, because this review is turning into a rant that I completely didn’t intend. I do have to say that the dialogue is very odd – for example, Clay will be thinking something in his head, but then another character will respond to it out loud. It happened so frequently that I genuinely thought that mind-reading would turn out to be a plot point. It didn’t.

I know it sounds like I loathed Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore and I really didn’t at all. I think I just expected a bookstore-based story with a few odd goings on, not the conspiratorial mystery that I ended up with. It has a unique and interesting plot, but it wasn’t explained even nearly well enough. It’s a shame as it had such good potential, but it’s a deeply average book at best.

Visit Robin Sloan’s website here.


  1. Ailyn Koay says:

    I remember reading this and the ending was not what expected it to be… but I did not regret reading it but I do get what you mean

  2. Ellie says:

    HOW INTERESTING. That's a similar response from you and Charlotte, then… Don't worry, I won't come and steal it back – I bought my own copy when we were all in Leeds taking Waterstones for everything she'd got. 😀

  3. I quite liked this book, but the google emphasis was really weird to me. To me, unless it's non-fiction obviously, you should invent your own company if it's going to be so heavily used and discussed in your narrative. If he'd had a company called, I dunno 'Boogle', everyone would know he's talking about a Google style company where they are pushing boundaries and employ non-traditional work environments etc but it wouldn't have the same sycophantic and obsessive connotations this book had.

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