If ever there was a book which deserved a prequel it’s Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and Robin Sloan has kindly obliged with the delightful novella Ajax Penumbra, 1969. There was so much implied backstory in the original novel that it would have been a crime not to have explored it further, so here we get to take a look at a young Mr Penumbra, just starting out on the path that would lead to 1960s San Francisco, a 24-hour bookstore, a sunken ship and two men who would come to shape his life.
At a little over a hundred pages it’s only a short little book, but then it doesn’t set out to try and cover too much ground. Instead, as the title suggests, it focuses on a particular moment in Mr Penumbra’s earlyish life, as this slightly square, bookish young man ventures out into the Summer of Love in search of a very particular book. Along the way we see a little of his life up to that point, meeting an early friend whose obsession with computers nicely foreshadows Penumbra’s own, later in life, but perhaps more importantly we also meet a young Marcus Corvina and the previous owner of a certain tall, thin bookshop.
It’s a cleverly written book, making use of the shorter page count to tell a tight, concise story, keeping the plot nice and simple to allow the opportunity to really delve into Penumbra’s character to expand upon what we already know. We see him described as having the gift of ‘willingness to entertain absurd ideas’ (which sounds rather like the mindset needed to best enjoy this sort of book), and get a sense of the grit and determination that lie underneath his quiet, restrained demeanour. It’s almost a character study in fact, wrapped up in an engaging story that sees his first introduction to the mystery that he and Corvina set out to explore in such different ways.
Novellas are not to everyone’s taste, especially those (like this) that take an oblique look at a wider story, focusing in on one element in particular. Sloan has created such an interesting, unexpected little world though, that this is exactly the sort of book it deserves – light, simple and easy to read, but one which takes a leisurely look at one of the key characters to widen the focus of the whole story and add depth and character to what’s gone before. It would obviously be lovely to read even more about this world that Sloan has created, but this is a delightful story that does an excellent job of gently expanding upon the original novel.