Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Book review: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore (2012) by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is one of those books that appears to have the perfect blend of ingredients for something brilliant. It's a mystery/adventure set in San Francisco, revolving around an out-of-work marketeer and web designer who takes a job as a clerk at the odd little bookshop of the title. He soon realises that there is more to Mr. Penumbra's than meets the eye, and together with a group of his friends, he embarks on a mission to get to the bottom of the shop's real purpose. What follows is a fantastical series of events involving an international secret society and almost impossibly complex codes hidden inside a series of books. It's a collision of ancient mystery and very modern, internet-savvy characters. It really sounded like something I would love, and it was in fact a really enjoyable little story. However, it's short - almost certainly far too short for all the ideas it tries to cram in - and at the end I realised it had been something of a letdown, for two main reasons.

Firstly, I couldn't escape the nagging feeling that it was very familiar, that I'd almost read it before. It didn't take me long to realise that this was because the narrative voice reminded me so much of Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, a great adventure book which I read about a year ago. If it wasn't for the fact that Ready Player One is set in the future, I could easily have believed that this story was being told by a slightly older version of the same guy. Obviously the stories are very different, but their voices sound and feel very alike. Also, the plot is similar to Lev Grossman's Codex. Incredibly similar. Both have a kind-of-likeable, kind-of-annoying young male protagonist whose sidekicks are a computer-obsessed best friend and an unusually intelligent young woman (who's also the love interest), a central mystery involving a peculiar library and a centuries-old encoded book, and the use of modern technology and software to help solve a very old-fashioned conundrum. (There's even one scene, involving the main character visiting a warehouse full of museum objects to retrieve an important artefact, which I'm pretty sure is in both books, but I'd have to re-read Codex to know for definite, it's possible I'm confusing it with something else.)

Secondly, I found it very juvenile. I'm only sure it must be intended for an adult market because all the characters are adults - I really felt the author's style and execution would be much better suited to an adventure for teens (more specifically, teenage boys). Weirdly, it felt more like YA to me than Ready Player One, which actually has teenage protagonists. It also had all the hallmarks of YA that normally stop me from enjoying it: lack of a properly detailed backstory; two-dimensional characters (the bad guy is a collection of clich├ęs and a damp squib all at once); way too many convenient details (Neel is a millionaire who can pay for everything the group needs, Kat can get them into Google and utilise all the company's resources for their task, etc). There's no real tension or peril: it's too obvious any obstacles are going to be overcome easily. I did genuinely like the fact that the power of new technology was so closely woven into a story about an arcane fellowship of book-lovers, and the progression of the story illustrated that there will always be a place for both 'old' and 'new'. But all those references to Google, Twitter, apps etc are going to sound very dated very soon, and the fact that the characters could solve practically anything by looking it up on the internet - while accurate and funny - diffused a lot of potential tension.

I thought this was a likeable, quick and very easy read but I have to admit I'm a bit bemused by all the rave reviews it's been getting (the palpable 'buzz' around this book was what led me to read it in the first place). It's a nice idea, but it's been done before and done better. Ready Player One is more involving and more fun, and there are countless versions of the secret-society-intrigue-and-mystery story that have more power, atmosphere and punch.

Rating: 5/10

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