Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsMr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a romp of a first novel by Robin Sloan. It’s a perfect book for booklovers who lean toward the mysterious and fantastic, blurring genre lines throughout to afford readers a marvelous time.

The novel begins when Clay Jannon, the first-person narrator, is responding to an advertisement for a clerk in a 24-hour bookstore in San Francisco. Clay was educated as a graphic artist, but he’s finding jobs scarce since his work designing a logo and a website for a bagel bakery and acting as the “voice” of @NewBagel on Twitter — definitely a new economy sort of job. When the bakery went bust along with the rest of the economy less than a year after Clay took the job, he was left jobless with a very slim resume. So the help wanted ad in the window of the bookstore seems like a godsend, even though Clay questions whether the bookstore is a legitimate employer — after all, legitimate employers advertise on Craigslist, not in their windows, right? Clay suspects that “24-Hour Bookstore” is a euphemism for something distasteful.

He’s wrong about that, but he’s right that there’s something weird about the place. For one thing, there are almost no customers. In fact, there are almost no books, either, at least not the normal sort of books you would expect to be on offer. The bookstore is oddly shaped, too:Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

[I]magine the shape and volume of a normal bookstore turned up on its side. This place was absurdly narrow and dizzyingly tall, and the shelves went all the way up — three stories of books, maybe more.…


The shelves were packed close together, and it felt like I was standing at the border of a forest — not a friendly California forest, either, but an old Transylvanian forest, a forest full of wolves and witches and dagger-wielding bandits all waiting just beyond moonlight’s reach. There were ladders that clung to the shelves and rolled side to side. Usually those seem charming, but here, stretching up into the gloom, they were ominous. They whispered rumors of accidents in the dark.

A dedicated group of individuals visit the store to borrow books from the special collection housed in those ominous shelves; they never pay any money, and they ask for the volumes by the name on the spine, which appears to be simply the last name of the author.
Mr. Penumbra hires Clay for the night-time shift, from 10:00 p.m. until 6:00 a.m. He tells him not to look into any of the books in the back of the store, the ones on those high shelves, but only retrieve them for customers. And Clay must also keep precise records of all transactions, including not just what book was given to whom, but the time, the customer’s appearance, the customer’s state of mind, and anything else that Clay might observe, down to the material of which the customer’s coat buttons are made. It’s all very strange, but it’s an easy enough job.

But Clay can’t resist looking into those books. And there he finds… gibberish. And then Clay becomes curious about the mysteries in the store and tries to unravel them. It is a trip that will lead him deep into data networks and across the country, and give him a fair bit of insight into himself.

Sloan’s novel is about the intersection of books and technology, a subject of intense concern to many of us who love books in all their many forms, books as art, books as objects, books as repositories of information, books as sources of pleasure. The writing is lively and the plot is deliciously complicated. The novel contains both joy and melancholy, but ultimately, it is forward-looking, about how anyone can find his or her own place in the new world in which we find ourselves.Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore

It may seem strange that I see this book as straddling genres; there are no spells, no magic, no wizards (excepting always those who are wizards with technology, which mostly means Google employees in this novel). But it has the air of fantasy, of the mysticism inherent in books, of the magic of puzzles and those who devote their lives to solving them. And, of course, there’s a secret society; maybe that’s enough. Or maybe I just loved this book so much that I want everyone to have the joy of reading it. Take my word for it, fantasy fans: you’ll like Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

~Terry Weyna

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan A plot summary of Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore should be enough to market the novel. Set in contemporary San Francisco, Sloan’s hero is a D&D nerd who works at a bookstore, discovers a secret society, and starts dating, in his words, a “hot girl wizard” who is way out of his league and who works for Google. His quest begins when he loses his job in the 2008 economic collapse. So now you should know whether you’d like to read this book. But if that’s not enough, I’ll say this: it recalls Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs, Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Library of Babel,” and Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Having said that, it’s not as good as any of those texts.

~Ryan Skardal

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan Based on the blurb and the reviews above by Terry and Ryan, I knew I was going to love Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and I did. It’s geeky, bookish, and fun. Just my thing. I listened to Macmillan Audio’s version which was perfectly performed by Ari Fliakos. I definitely recommend this version!

~Kat Hooper

A gleeful and exhilarating tale of global conspiracy, complex code-breaking, high-tech data visualization, young love, rollicking adventure, and the secret to eternal life — mostly set in a hole-in-the-wall San Francisco bookstore. The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon out of his life as a San Francisco Web-design drone — and serendipity, sheer curiosity, and the ability to climb a ladder like a monkey has landed him a new gig working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. But after just a few days on the job, Clay begins to realize that this store is even more curious than the name suggests. There are only a few customers, but they come in repeatedly and never seem to actually buy anything, instead “checking out” impossibly obscure volumes from strange corners of the store, all according to some elaborate, long-standing arrangement with the gnomic Mr. Penumbra. The store must be a front for something larger, Clay concludes, and soon he’s embarked on a complex analysis of the customers’ behavior and roped his friends into helping to figure out just what’s going on. But once they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, it turns out the secrets extend far outside the walls of the bookstore. With irresistible brio and dazzling intelligence, Robin Sloan has crafted a literary adventure story for the twenty-first century, evoking both the fairy-tale charm of Haruki Murakami and the enthusiastic novel-of-ideas wizardry of Neal Stephenson or a young Umberto Eco, but with a unique and feisty sensibility that’s rare to the world of literary fiction. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is exactly what it sounds like: an establishment you have to enter and will never want to leave, a modern-day cabinet of wonders ready to give a jolt of energy to every curious reader, no matter the time of day.


  • Terry Weyna

    TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She reads all day long as an insurance coverage attorney, and in all her spare time as a reviewer, critic and writer. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, two rambunctious cats, and an enormous library.

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  • Ryan Skardal

    RYAN SKARDAL, on our staff from September 2010 to November 2018, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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  • Kat Hooper

    KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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