When web designer Clay Jannon can’t find a job designing websites due to the Great Recession he lands a job at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Very few people actually purchase books from the store, but many borrow big heavy volumes whose pages are covered in an unknown code or language. It is not long before Clay finds himself on a quest.
A bookstore with bookshelves so high clerks have to use ladders to reach the uppermost shelves, old books, a centuries old mystery, plus Aldus Manutius - it’s almost as if Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was written for me. I should have loved this this book, but I didn’t. I liked parts of it but for long stretches I was simply bored.
As I read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore I could help but think of Ready Player One, another story about a young man on a quest to solve a sort of puzzle. Both take place amidst a “Great Recession.” In Ready Player One Wade seeks to find three keys and pass through three gates. If he succeeds not only will he become an instant billionaire, but he will effectively save the internet (and by extension, the world) from an evil company that given the chance would monetize every use of the internet. Said evil company is even willing to kill to get what it wants. In Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore Clay seeks to figure out what secret Aldus Manutius left for the world discover, and if he can uncover the secret then...life as we know it will continue. If Clay can't uncover the secret then, life will still continue more or less as we know it.
In Ready Player One there was a real sense of urgency. Whether or not Wade was able to find the keys and pass through the gates had consequences either way. One of the main problems with Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is that nothing was ever really at stake. There is never any real danger. There is no real sense that uncovering the secret is all that important. The revelation of exactly what Mr. Penumbra and his customers and colleagues were hoping to find was especially disappointing. If the story had more fantastical elements it might have made sense, but since the story is set in the present day (more or less) what Mr. Penumbra and company hoped to find was less a mysterious quest with life changing consequences to a kid playing dress up and pretending to go on an adventure.
Another aspect that contributed to the lack of urgency or importance of Clay’s quest was that everything came too easily. Clay just happens to have a best friend who is a millionaire who can fund whatever Clay needs to finish the quest. Clay meets a pretty girl who not only happens to work at Google and can provide Clay with access to all of her employer’s tools, but who just happens to get a promotion shortly after she and Clay meet. Said promotion enables her to officially devote Google’s resources to Clay’s project temporarily. When everything comes so easily, it really isn’t much of a quest.
I loved the idea of this book, I just didn’t love the execution. If author Robin Sloan writes another I would be willing to give it a try. The bookstore, the underground library, and the people who cross Clay’s path - there is potential here. With deeper characters, real stakes, and substantive obstacles that the hero has to work hard to overcome, this could have been a five-star story. Maybe next time.