BY SARAH LAURENCE
A light-hearted fairy tale for grownups, Robin Sloan’s new novel combines the magic of archaic and beautiful books with the modern wonders of the Google campus and a good, old-fashioned mystery.
Having lost his job as a website designer in San Francisco’s mass food-chain bust, affable protagonist Clay Jannon is drawn to a “Help Wanted” advertisement by an equal mixture of curiosity and desperation after a few months of unemployment. He’s hired by Mr Penumbra to work nightshift at the latter’s bookshop.
It takes only a few nights in the dusty book emporium and even fewer encounters with the store’s scarce and frantic customers for Clay to realise that there is more to the bookshop with the gold sign, the high ladder and the ancient computer than he initially thought. Ignoring Mr Penumbra’s dire warnings about the consequences of being too curious, he begins to do exactly what he’s told not to, to investigate the books at the top of the tall tower in the middle of the store, the reason for insistence on impeccably kept logbooks, the hysteria of the store’s few customers in their search for their next tome and the miraculous ability of the store to stay in business despite having almost no customers of a paying nature.
His carefully targeted Google advertisement attracts only one bus-waiting customer – the fiercely intelligent and attractive Kat who wears multiple copies of the same T-shirt and works on the Google campus: “As soon as she leaves, I log in to check my hyper-targeted ad campaign. Did I accidentally check the box that said “beautiful”? (What about “single”?).”
After realising that their curiosity may have landed the kindly Mr Penumbra and his quirky store in trouble, Clay and Kate, together with Neel (Clay’s best friend from grade school turned programming millionaire) and Mr Penumbra himself launch a cross-country journey in search of answers to questions they haven’t yet formulated.
The book is an easy read and charmingly written in terse, present tense prose, showcasing Sloan’s gift for description and a leisurely stream of consciousness that keeps you hooked until the end.