The kind of book that you’ll find shelved under Fiction simply for the sake of ease, Robin Sloan’s Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore confidently straddles modern fantasy and mystery with a dash of nostalgic epic fantasy and even a little social commentary thrown in. That might sound like a strange mixture, but this is a story – of Clay, a young man who finds himself working the night shift in a mysterious bookshop full of coded tomes studied by eccentric, nocturnal scholars hunting for an ancient secret – that gleefully mashes its influences up into a delightful whole that just works.
It’s very much a modern fantasy novel for the digital age, and takes an interesting look at the role of books and bookshops in a world where everything is available digitally. There’s an undercurrent of old-school swords & sorcery fantasy that will tickle anyone who’s ever played Dungeons & Dragons or Heroquest (“Why does the typical adventuring group consist of a wizard, a warrior and a rogue, anyway? It should really be a wizard, a warrior and a rich guy.”), but it’s rooted in the modern world in which shy Google employees nervously apologise for putting physical bookshops out of business, and a cobbled-together computer programme can solve a puzzle that might take years to complete manually.
The titular bookstore itself is a wonder – on the surface a small, unremarkable place, but with hidden depths (and heights) and an intriguing history, just the sort of place any book lover would kill to explore. It’s just one part of what makes this book so good though, alongside a clever plot that takes in a 500 year-old mystery, the history of print and typesetting, and a sharp commentary on our reliance on technology; and a cast of characters full of spark and life. Clay is the sort of smart but unlucky everyman with decreasing expectations of success that many of us can relate to, while his friends and companions range from the playful and eccentric Mr Penumbra – whose long association with his store and the wider mystery is gradually revealed – to Kat, a smart and successful young woman working for Google, whose growing success at work is at once a boon and a curse to Clay.
Ultimately this is a fantasy adventure novel that largely follows the sort of enjoyably predictable arc that such books have used for decades, so it’s fast-paced and exciting and gripping and utterly impossible to put down. That being said, Sloan clearly knows what he’s doing – he diverges from the expected path in a few clever, unexpected ways that keep things interesting and avoid some of the usual cliches, and where many similar books tread a more serious path, he writes with a light and witty touch. Fun, funny, vivid and absolutely enchanting, this is the sort of book that stays with you, and makes you wish it was real.