Friday, 25 January 2013

Review: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I found this via I09's list of best science fiction and fantasy books of 2012, which is funny, because it really isn't either. What it is, though, is a book for people who love science fiction and fantasy and books and technology. It reminds me of William Gibson's recent work, not because it's dystopian (it isn't, not even slightly), but because it's like science fiction set in the present.

It's also beautifully written. I don't read "literary fiction". I'm a genre snob. But if this is literary fiction, then I like it. The metaphors and turns of phrase are wonderful. "Feeding hours like dry twigs into the fire," the author writes. He's conscious of language. "Moffat’s prose is fine: clear and steady, with just enough sweeping statements about destiny and dragons to keep things well inflated," he says, describing the fictional fantasy novels which play such an important role in the plot, and it could almost be a description of his own writing. He also has semicolons, and he knows how to use them.

There's humour that comes from an affectionate, almost loving, way of seeing the absurdity of the world, and from masterfully chosen, mostly technological juxtapositions. "The thinnest tendrils of dawn are creeping in from the east. People in New York are softly starting to tweet." Later, the protagonist's Googler girlfriend buys a New York Times "but couldn’t figure out how to operate it".

I only spotted a single typo ("left" instead of "loft"), and that level of professionalism is vanishingly rare.

So: language, 5 stars. I wish every other book I've read recently was written more like this one.

Plot, then. The plot is beautifully woven. Not a Chekhov's gun is left unfired. There are about 20 named characters, and virtually all of them, even most of the minor ones, get to participate in the great wrap-up of the epilogue. It's missing one element of the classic happy ending, but that feels absolutely right, and it's better than a happy ending: it's a beautiful ending. It's a rich, wonderful ending. I've often been disappointed by weak endings to books I've otherwise enjoyed, but this is one of my favourite endings of any book I can think of. Five stars for plot, even if the protagonist's ultimate triumph is built on an unlikely mistake earlier in the book, and even if a couple of the events are also unlikely (like Google allowing a relatively minor project to take all their server time for three seconds).

And partway through it turns into a heist novel! I love heist novels.

Characters. I liked the main character almost immediately. He's having a somewhat difficult time, but he has perspective and wry humour about it, and he doesn't whine. He's capable of admiring and respecting other people greatly, including intelligent, strong women: "I am really into the kind of girl you can impress with a prototype," he says. His love for his eccentric, elderly mentor is an important part of what drives the plot.

The other characters are all quirky without being self-conscious about it, all (seen through the protagonist's eyes) people of skill and worth and, in general, goodwill. I loved every one of them. Five stars and at least three cheers for the characters.

Finally, setting. The book takes place in some wonderfully bizarre places: a tall, narrow bookstore full of mysterious volumes, an underground cavern of cultish scholarship, a textile museum, a storage unit for museum artifacts in the dryness of Nevada where motorized shelves move constantly in a stately dance. That last was totally unlikely. Wouldn't you want to keep valuable, rare items still? And yet it the feel of it was just right, much more so than a more realistic, static building would have been.

Even the protagonist's apartment gradually fills with his artist roommate's strange and wonderful miniature city.

You could say that the setting is the real world, but you'd be wrong. Aldus Manutius existed, but his friend Gerritszoon didn't, and Gerritszoon's font isn't on every electronic device, because it doesn't exist either. Nor, presumably, does the cult of scholars known as the Unbroken Spine. I have no idea whether Google really works the way it's described, but it wouldn't surprise me at all to hear that it doesn't. And there's one very minor mistake that I know is a mistake: what the main character calls "middleware" is not what middleware actually is.

No, this setting isn't the real world. It's better. Apart from anything else, it has the epic fantasy novels of Moffat in it.

Five stars for the setting as well, making it a perfect 25 for this book. Oh, there are things I've quibbled about, but none of them significantly diminished my enjoyment. I'll be looking for more of Robin Sloan's books. I hope they're like this one.

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