Review – Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Well, this is a weird trend.

While nowhere near as self-congratulatory as Ready Player One, Geekomancy, or Pirate Cinema, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is nevertheless another well-publicized novel about idealized nerds solving mysteries. These are geeky kids we’re clearly meant to find witty, charming, and talented. They host Firefly marathons. They insert Dungeons and Dragons jargon into everyday conversation. They’re successful business owners, they have sex with their lady friends (or are irresistible to men everywhere), and they’re the only people clever enough to assemble the pop-culture knowledge required to solve centuries-old mysteries and change the world.

Princess Bride quotes! Sexy tomboys! Video games! So say we all!

I am the bull’s-eye for this target demographic, yet these books drive me freaking nuts.

Like a DaVinci Code for geeks, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore focuses on a young graphic designer’s efforts to crack a code created hundreds of years ago by the designer of the world’s most popular (fictional) typeface. His efforts are hindered by a secret society that has spent decades trying to figure it out on their own, while he’s aided by his San Francisco techie friends. With the exception of the protagonist, who finds himself slumming at the titular bookstore, all of his friends have dream jobs at Industrial Light & Magic, Google, or are doing quirky things like modeling breast physics for video games. His enemies, meanwhile, are defined solely by their resistance to search engines and crowd-sourcing. The closest thing anyone exhibits to a negative character trait in the entire novel is when the protagonist’s girlfriend stops answering his texts.

The stakes in this story are not incredibly high.

It will come as no surprise to you that the mystery everyone’s racing to solve promises the secret of immortality. Nor will it shock you that to a long-dead typesetting genius, immorality might have a different meaning than it does to the old men rushing to discover it. You will probably be taken aback however, as I was, to learn the mystery’s explanation is delivered via PowerPoint presentation.

There are slight stabs of satire throughout the novel, but in addition to lacking a tangible threat, the narrative lacks bite. For better or for worse, a proper portrait of geek subculture needs a bit of defensive meanness, a self-imposed sense of otherness, a nasty spark of superiority in addition to a resigned attitude of self-deprecation. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, however, ends with an epilogue that promises everyone goes on to become even more awesome. It’s so effortlessly positive it’s eye-rolling.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a strange, consequence-free, inoffensive read. Welcome to the dawn of the geek cozy.

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