Greg's Reviews > Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
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Oct 25, 2012

really liked it
Read in October, 2012

Argh. For whatever reason it's taking forever to organize my thoughts into coherence. So they won't be. Coherent that is.

Penumbra's has a surprising amount of thematic weight for a "light" read. Penumbra's talks about friendship, technology, cults, isolation, ennui, passion, simplicity, old-worlds, it's all there. Is it a little packed in? Probably, though here I think the deceptive slightness of the plot helps because you don't really notice Sloan shoving your carrots in with all that cotton candy yumminess. Ultimately I think Sloan's theme is as cliche as "friendship makes it all worthwhile," which makes me gag, but that doesn't make it any less true. This seems a little obvious since the MacGuffin of the whole thing pretty much says it outright.

There's a lot about technology and luddism here (OK/TK), particularly about the book v. kindle because come on, how could Sloan resist? It's a fun diversion, but I don't think Sloan wants us to get carried away with book v. kindle debates. Since the rise of the internet, and then social media, writers write more and more books about the real world versus the imagined/virtual/technological world, always coming out on the side of the real world (In a lot of the Penumbra's reviews I read, people keep citing Ready Player One and I don't want to feel left out, so I'll cite it here). Sloan is hardly that simplistic. It makes me wonder, why do we need to put the two in competition. Yes, there's obvious competition, but you know horses and cars and trains and planes and bicycles coexist just fine, why can't books and kindles? There's benefits to both.

Penumbra's structure is a big reason it feels so slight and fluffy. The quest structure is one of the oldest in the world. We know it's rhymes and rhythms better most any other. It's hard to build tension with a quest structure because the reader knows where he or she is in the story and that of course the hero is going to defeat this stage because there's still a 100 or so pages left. We are smart we readers of books (or kindles). To his credit, Sloan seems to understand this and purposefully makes it harder on himself. Kat and Neel wave their hands and Google and $$ make their problems go away and all the tension melts away as well. That's just plot tension though, Sloan still keeps situational tension through his writing and characters. Scenes like Clay's night-time skulking and Kat's Google Army still bristle with tension even if we're reasonably sure of their outcome.

Clay spends a lot of time isolated. It is important that he have a clear and distinctive voice to keep our attention. Sloan succeeds in keeping him both quirky and normal with a big, fat, glob of neuroses mixed in to keep it interesting. Clay's voice is another reason why Penumbra's might feel slight, but readability is not opposite to quality. Just because it's easy and fun to read doesn't mean it has no weight.

Is it too current? I don't think so. A lot of writers talk in vague terms because they're afraid specifics date things and make things less universal and people in a hundred years time won't know what Google or twitter is. Ugh. The specific can be universal. The vague is always just vague.

Basically I loved it and will definitely read it again. Ugh. This "review" sucks. Oh well.

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