RogerBW's Blog

Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan 10 July 2018

2012… hard to categorise, but I think "contemporary thriller" comes closest. Unemployed web designer Clay Jannon gets a job at a bookshop… which turns out to be distinctly Odd.

It's not magic, but it is an ancient puzzle: one which Clay is going to try to solve. But what goes wrong here for me is that, although Clay has read a lot of heroic fantasy, he doesn't seem to have learned anything from it. He breaks promises and shares secrets with casual acquaintances… and the narrative never seems to realise that this is in any way a problem. (It reminds me in this respect of Rick Cook's Wizard's Bane, in which the first thing our hero is told on arriving in Fantasyland is "oaths matter here", the first thing he does is of his own volition is to break an oath, and only the designated Nasty People ever seem to think this is a bad thing.)

That makes me uncomfortable with Clay as a narrator; his own insouciance – sure, I'm taking on a problem which thousands of very smart people have failed to solve for several hundred years, but I don't expect any particular difficulties; sure, some of them don't like me for this, and they are extraordinarily rich and powerful, but I won't worry about that – and the fact that he never seems to have to work terribly hard to get his amazing revelations both leave me with some sense of what people might be getting at when they whine about "millennials". There's no tension here; Clay gets everything handed to him on a plate, and if he can't do a thing one of his friends can. Only two challenges don't go exactly as planned, and they're both resolved by the end of the book.

Combine that with the wall of propaganda for Google (they have all the smartest people and best tech; everything they do is an unalloyed good), and there's a lot to dislike here. But in spite of that there's an interesting story being told. I liked what Sloan was trying to do, pointing up the effectiveness of fusing modern distributed computing with real books and scholarship; and I liked Clay's positive outlook even though it sometimes grated on me. While much of the writing is pedestrian, it has some beautifully lyrical moments.

So my frustration is mostly that the good stuff is buried in a mess of not-so-good stuff. But it's a short book, and fast-paced. Worth a try, particularly if you can find it on special offer.

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