Breaking the mould

Though I was never bewitched by Star Wars, Harry Potter, Dan Brown books, science fiction, or fantasy fiction (I’m not even sure what the distinction between the later two genres are) and don’t tweet, I was enthralled by former Twitter executive Robin Sloan’s novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. The bookstore, located amidst strip joints on Broadway in northern San Francisco is very long and narrow with shelves rising more than 30 feet.

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After novice designer Clay Jannon loses his job with NewBagel during the Great Recession, he gets a job in the graveyard shift of Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore. Sales are very low, but don’t seem to be the point. In addition to the sales in the front room, there is a backroom from which some elderly “shoppers” borrow mysterious treatises (written in a hieroglyphic-like code).

I guess Ajax Penumbra is an unlikely warrior and little more conventional a wizard, but Clay and his friend from childhood who has gotten rich with an application for rendering body parts (women’s breasts in particular) and a Google Princess Leia, Clay goes to the headquarter of what seems to be a cult on Fifth Avenue in New York, and steals the cult’s secret text, to be decoded by Google’s computers.

I like Clay’s voice, ironic about his fanboy penchants. I like it well enough to have made it through a book that in many ways is outside my interests, though the contrast and tension between Old Knowledge and New Knowledge is certainly interesting and important. And the moral of the story is laudable: “There is no immortality that is not built on friendship and work done with care.”sloan2.jpg

Ajax Penumbra, 1969 is a prequel for Robin Sloan’s popular Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, available only as an e-book. Ajax Penumbra is not the protagonist of the novel (that would be Clay Jannon), though an important character. In the prequel he starts as a student then junior librarian at an obscure college who is dispatched to San Francisco to try to find a copy of Techne Tycheon, last seen more than a century ago in Gold Rush San Francisco.

In addition to being on a quest and finding his way to a long, high, and narrow bookstore on Broadway in San Francisco, Penumbra is obsessed by old books and comes to be employed at the bookstore, where he is already subordinate to Corvina. Perhaps more surprisingly, Penumbra’s roommate (Claude) is a pioneer computer builder.

Though occurring decades before the story of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, I think that the order of publication and of composition is the right order for reading. If I had read Ajax Penumbra, 1969 first and not known where his life was going, I suspect I would not have gone on to read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, which is a way of saying that Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is better than its prequel, I guess.

Though I was not in San Francisco in 1969, the historical detail seems plausible and well-researched. That BART has not yet opened is very important to the plot.

©2014, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

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