Half-way through Robin Sloan’s bibliophile adventure tale I wasn’t sure that I liked it quite as much as I wanted or expected to. Here were all the ingredients to the perfect story, and for all intents and purposes, I was Sloan’s target audience. So, I was surprised that the adventure wasn’t nearly as striking or pulse pounding as I hoped it would be, but then, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore begins with struggling designer Clay Jannon happening upon a help-wanted sign in a mysterious bookstore, exactly the kind of bookstore that I would foam at the mouth to discover, let alone work for, but this is no ordinary bookstore—when Jannon’s curiosity leads him to open one of the books in the tall stacks of the “Waybacklist” he sets in motion an adventure of decoding, spying, infiltrating a secret society and the age-old quest for immortality that hangs heavy in almost all the fantasy novels of my youth. Like Clay Jannon, I owe a great deal of my own imaginative swings to great fantasy series like the Chronicles of Narnia, His Dark Materials and The Lord of the Rings—for Clay, it’s his childhood love of a series called The Dragon-Song Chronicles that primes him for adventure in the first place (after all, if not a fantasy-lover, whose mind would automatically hover in a suspension of disbelief?) and then connects all the mysterious dots, like a key. But, as is the case for so many quests—the result, the treasure, the holy grail is never quite what you expect it to be.
The holy grail in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore isn’t what I thought it would be, and like some of the characters who were holding their breath for the secret of life, I was expecting a big hullabaloo, words of wisdom, a secret—the secret—and like so many who hold their breath for such things, I was ultimately disappointed… but only for a moment.
It’s not the quest that makes Sloan’s novel fantastic, not the fantasy, the mystery or the chase—it’s the very last paragraph in a brightly crafted, spinning read that moves you without even realizing it. It’s heart-warming, frenzied, often hilarious tribute to all the books that have come before, all the friendships you forge with the written word, and it’s this—the very last line, “A clerk and a ladder and a warm golden light, and then: the right book exactly, at exactly the right time.”
Because sometimes, that’s all it takes. It’s the trump card, Sloan—you nailed it.