Part of the joy of a good story is the characters. In many ways, it might be said that the point of a good story is the characters themselves: how they hold up against the challenges slung at them by the plot; how they celebrate their triumphs and mourn their losses. It is also very much about who they are: are they funny and clever, dark and brooding, or perhaps a little bit of everything, with a touch of crazy in between? Oftentimes, it is the most complex characters that have the greatest impact, the ones that linger readers’ memories: like Tyrion Lannister, from A Song of Ice and Fire, or Morgaine from Mists of Avalon. Neither of these characters might be considered purely good, nor purely evil: they simply are.
It is this complexity of character that makes them very interesting storytellers. Much of Mists of Avalon is narrated by Morgaine from a first person point-of-view, and it’s fascinating to see how her training as a Priestess of the Goddess, her relationships with the other characters, and her understanding of the world influence the way she tells the story. Tyrion is the same: his background and his understanding of the world all play a part in how he tells the story. While it’s true they’re not the most reliable of narrators, it is this very unreliability that makes them interesting storytellers.
Sometimes, though, there are narrators who tell a story, but don’t seem to make the same impact as Tyrion and Morgaine do. They are almost colorless, relating events and talking about characters as they appear, with no input of their own. There is some fun to such characters, of course, but for the most part it’s obvious they’re nothing more than a vehicle for the story itself. “Like the bread dipped in cheese fondue,” as Hope put it when I commented on the “narrative shell” that is the lead character and narrator of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is the story of Clay Jannon, who gets laid off from his job during the American economic dip in 2008-2009, and winds up working as the night clerk in a quaint 24-hour bookstore owned by a mysterious gentleman named Mr. Penumbra. Although Clay finds the idea of a 24-hour bookstore a little odd, especially given the advent and growing popularity of electronic readers, he finds that he’s happy to work at the bookstore – especially when he starts interacting with the regulars: an odd bunch of people who order books from what he’s dubbed “the Waybacklist.” As he begins to look further into the activities and mysteries of the Waybacklist and of the bookstore itself, Clay stumbles upon a deeper mystery that may lead to him unlocking an immense secret that’s been kept hidden for hundreds of years.
It’s easy to see the appeal of this book: the title alone is enough to draw the attention of any avid reader, and the blurb at the back is capable of raising curiosity in anyone who happens to pick it up off the shelf. And as one dives into the first few chapters, Clay himself draws the reader in: his turn of phrase seems to indicate a wit that promises much snickering and amusement throughout the book. Unfortunately, wit is not indicative of character in this case, because Clay turns out to be quite unremarkable and colorless. He is, in fact, so colorless that he is borderline boring, and only the characters around him and the plot save the reader from dropping into a nap in the middle of the book. It’s hard to say if this was deliberate, or Sloan simply has difficulty writing an interesting narrator – likely the latter, because the people around Clay are precisely the kind of people one would love to have around oneself.
In fact, it is these supporting characters that manage to save Clay from utter ignominy – and reader frustration. Take his roommates, Ashley and Mat, for instance. Mat is an artist with Industrial Light and Magic, while Ashley is a rock-climbing enthusiast and PR agent. And then there’s Kat Potente, Googler, seeker of immortality, and Clay’s love interest – though it’s rather hard to see what she sees in Clay, given how boring he appears to be. There’s also his best friend Neel Shah, a computer genius who owns a company dedicated solely to the accurate digital replication of boobs for video games and movies. His friendship with Clay is built on a grade-school love of a fantasy novel series and table-top RPGs – the stuff that all the best friendships are made of.
And then there are the people at the bookshop: Mr. Penumbra himself is quite fascinating, especially towards the middle and latter portions of the book. The day clerk, Oliver Grone, has a special place in my heart because he “daydreams about Ionian columns,” and “[doesn't] mess with anything newer than the twelfth century.” And then there are the bookstore’s regular, but more mysterious, clients: the excitable Tyndall; the stuttering but sweet Lapin; and Fedorov of the thick Eastern European accent. It is these mysterious clients that eventually lure Clay into investigating what he calls the “Waybacklist” – and to uncover what’s really going on with his employer, their regulars, and the bookshop as a whole.
Speaking of investigation, the other thing that saves this novel from being a complete bore is the plot. It starts out somewhat slow, but by the middle portion – incidentally, just when Clay starts to get utterly uninteresting – it really picks up as it takes the reader on a quest (this is literally what Clay and Neel call it) from San Francisco to New York, from the bookshop to the hidden library deep in the bowels of the headquarters of the Broken Spine, and then to the gleaming architecture of Google’s complex. The chase is exciting – exciting enough that Hope and I decided to blast through the last third of the book instead of sticking to our two-chapter-a-day quota for our read-along. As the pursuit gets more intense, the plot spirals up and up to reach a spectacular climax, before sliding out into a denouement and epilogue that some readers may find a mite saccharine, but which is, undeniably, satisfying and enjoyable. I personally find the use of the future tense for the Epilogue to be interesting and fun, a nice twist on the traditional epilogue most readers encounter in other books.
A word of warning, though, to those who walk into this and expect complexity a la Neal Stephenson, particularly in the parts involving codes: such complexity is not to be found here. Even when the novel begins talking about cryptography and code-breaking, it never once goes into anything in-depth. Even the code-breaking done at Google is glossed over; not even Kat explains what’s going on.
Overall, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is an entertaining and engaging read: the plot is pretty well-paced, with a good payoff at the end, and the supporting characters are a joy to read. The plot itself might not have the same amount of puzzle-solving as other, similar arcane mysteries (The Rule of Four, for instance, or The Name of the Rose), but is entertaining nevertheless, tying in the past, present, and possible future of books, reading, bookstores, and libraries. The narrator/protagonist might not be so interesting, but that simply leaves the reader free to slide into the story and go on a ride with the other, far more fascinating people surrounding the poor, colorless narrator. And if this novel is anything, it is that: a fun ride with a tidy, satisfying ending.