Once again, I feel a bit like a jerk for not falling in love with a book that everyone in the entire world is raving about. But hear me out, okay?
I once posed the argument that modern technology - the internet and cell phones in particular - have all but ruined the modern (non-whodunit) mystery tale. The challenge of a 21st century writer has become how to present a puzzle to his or her reader in such a way that one doesn't wonder, "Why doesn't this character just Google it?" or "Why doesn't the character just use an iPhone to get help?" It's not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, just an extra set of challenges that a writer has to account for in constructing the plot. Robin Sloan takes on that challenge and, in many ways, Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore
is a strongly worded answer to that very question: can books, mystery, and modern technology happily coexist?
Clay Jannon is an out-of-work Web designer who finds employment at a quirky bookstore in a red-light San Fransisco neighborhood. The bookstore's primary business comes from a collection of offbeat customers who don't buy anything. Rather, they borrow from the store's Waybacklist: a collection of books on shelves accessible only by ladder. The books appear to be rare first editions, leather bound volumes of yesteryear, but upon further inspection Clay discovers that they contain a strange cryptic code. Together with his techie friends -- childhood friend/entrepreneur Neel, Google employee/love interest Kat -- Clay sets out to crack the code in the Waybacklist pages. The friends find themselves with an ancient code, a secret society of book lovers donning black robes, and a bunch of cranky black-robe-donning wannabes.
The book is inventive, certainly, and it reads fairly quickly. I don't have any truly big complaints other than...I just didn't feel any tension. The characters are likable, but not particularly fleshed out. Their presence in the story often seemed to be dictated by the skills they possessed that might help Clay's quest. The puzzle at the center of the story never seemed to be leading to anything especially mind-blowing, the sinister characters never seemed especially threatening, and no one seemed to be in any sort of true danger. It felt as though Clay could walk away from the mystery and there would be no ramifications for any of the other characters aside from the personal disappointment of an unsolved sudoku. The clues that Clay found didn't seem very clue-ish to me - they weren't things that would cause me to suspect an ancient mystery was afoot - but that may have been a case of something flying over my head.
Also, this is a very minor quibble, but would Google employees really be using that many Apple products? I'm really not very tech savvy, but I thought the two were basically competitors and the notion that Googlers would be provided with MacBooks, iPads, etc seemed...odd.
Still, I think many people would find this to be a fun read. Indeed the amount of "Ohmigod, you must read this" reviews floating around the internet (and some sort of 24-hour release party?) suggests a miniature phenomenon surrounding it. It's a fine book, it just didn't suck me in the way that I had hoped.