The independent bookstore is one of the last strongholds against encroaching homogenisation under the corporate boot. When even chain stores struggle to maintain a bricks and mortar presence on the high street, the plight of independents is even more desperate, yet in their identity is their advantage, adaptable and adapted to their niche, as individual as the books which line their shelves.
Victim of the recession, Clay Jannon is educated, motivated and systematic in his approach to job seeking, and the HELP WANTED sign in the bookstore window did not fall within his search parameters with its vague wording of late shift, specific requirements, good benefits, yet curiosity and the pressure of economics combined to make him walk through the door. Hired by the mysterious Ajax Penumbra, Clay soon finds that, between the late night clientele and their borrowing habits, his employer is not the only peculiar thing in the wilfully obscure stocklist.
Passing time through the quiet nights, Clay breaks one of the conditions of his employment, purloining one of the record books for analysis and discovering hidden patterns within it. While Penumbra is unexpectedly delighted and reveals that he is a member of a secret society called the Unbroken Spine, dedicated to solving the riddles of the texts, more conservative elements are enraged. When Penumbra vanishes, Clay feels it is because of his actions and takes it upon himself to investigate.
A fan of epic fantasy, in particular the Dragon-Song Chronicles of Clark Moffat, Clay sees the investigation as a quest and embarks on his adventure in the amiable company of his potentially-dating housemates Mat and Ashley, his best friend Neel and Kat, object of Clay’s own hopeful attentions.
With histories reading like background notes rather than lives – Mat working for ILM, Kat at Google and Neel in software modelling – their areas of expertise are too conveniently matched to the challenges and while the romance of Clay and Kat is sweet, it never becomes more than a minor subplot in a book where none of the sugared characters seem real.
Debut novelist Robin Sloan’s own resume, like that of Clay and so much of his generation, is diverse and abstract with stints at various high profile organisations. With his move to San Francisco, where most of the story is set, he seems to have found a home in that city which most famously welcomes and embraces drifters and unusual characters.
Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is breezily written and a pleasant read but remains too safe, even tame, offering the comfort of a children’s book. Aspiring to be a celebration of books, bookstores, typography and eccentrics, wide eyed charm alone is insufficient to support the unconcealed wish fulfilment of the plot, never greater than when descending into a secret underground chamber concealed behind a false bookcase.
Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is now available from Atlantic Books