“What do you seek in these shelves?” This is the question asked of Clay Jannon when he first enters Mr. Penumbra’s 24–Hour Bookstore looking for a job. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines penumbra (noun) as a space of partial illumination (as in an eclipse) between the perfect shadow on all sides and the full light. By giving the proprietor this name, Robin Sloan gives us a hint as to the impending mystery surrounding this character.
Hired to work the night shift, Clay quickly begins to wonder how the bookstore makes enough money to stay in business. Most of the customers he sees come not to buy books but to borrow them from a vast special collection. Curiosity leads him to try to understand the meaning these books may contain, these manuscripts of one’s life, these Codex Vitae. Not above using his friends at Google and Apple to pursue an answer he finds himself delving into in a cult-like fellowship called the Unbroken Spine.
There is a playfulness and a humorous quality to this book that I enjoyed; even the book jacket glows with an eerie light in the dark. It doesn't take itself too seriously even though it covers topics of old knowledge versus new technology, friendship and disappointment, adapting and rising to the occasion when warranted. These are subjects anyone can write about in their own Codex Vitae.
As the overnight bookseller in a strange bookstore, Clay Jannon unravels the secrets of its shelves and customers. His interesting discoveries and sometimes humorous deductions keep the plot lively, but the characters are a little too flat, and I never really found a beating heart at the center of this story. The most fascinating “character” is the company known as Google. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore will appeal to readers interested in any combination of technology, books, antiquity, and mystery.