We arrive at books by many different routes. It may be that a cover catches our eye in the shop, or a review in a magazine sounds good, or somebody recommends it. I came to this book by a bit of a backwards route. I very much enjoyed a book called The Reader on the 6:27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent and the publisher’s blurb for the book said that it was like “Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore meets Amélie”. Now I had never even heard of the 24-hour book, but I thought I should give it a go purely on the basis that if people who liked it would like the book I just enjoyed so much then I should like it too.
OK, so publishers have been known to exaggerate or even lie when pushing their books, but it was worth risking the few quid on downloading it. It turns out that I did enjoy Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, even though it really isn’t anything much like the book that was being compared to it.
The Penumbra book is actually sort of like what the Da Vinci code might have been if it had been written by Douglas Coupland and was not about Jesus at all. At first I felt a little guilty reading what looked like it might be a hymn to printed books on a Kindle, but it soon turned a bit technological.
The bookstore of the title is one with a tiny but eclectic and carefully-chosen selection of books for sale, but a massive amount of mysterious books on the higher shelves are only borrowed by mysterious customers. The hero of the book is a recently-unemployed website designer who starts to investigate these mystery books, which leads to a 500-year-old secret society dedicated to cracking the secrets of life.
At this point it turns into a sort of quest for the hero, who treats it like a real-life dungeons and dragons game, adopts the role of ‘rogue’ and enlists the modern-day equivalents of a wizard and warrior to help him. By this time it is all getting a little complicated but compelling.
After the conclusion of the story there is a bit of a postamble (if that is a thing) which briefly describes what everybody went on to do and seemed to set everything up for a series of sequels, so I was a little surprised to find that the book was followed up by a prequel instead – Ajax Penumbra: 1969, which I immediately downloaded and read.
The prequel does explain a few things from the first book. It is more of a novella than a proper book, being extremely short, but I defy anybody to finish Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore and not want to read the prequel too. Or anything else that Robin Sloan decides to write, because he has a very readable style and seems equally at ease describing historical details (some real, some invented and some a bit of a mixture) , modern technology, and the possibilities for the near future.
By the way, reading it on a Kindle turned out to be very appropriate indeed.