Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore by Robin Sloan – Dan Brown meets Dungeons&Dragons


I read Robin Sloan’s Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore within 48 hours. It’s not a huge book, but more important: it’s page turning stuff!

The book is a colorful cocktail of ideas that will look great in a movie:


  • A bookstore full of unreadable books in shelves that span several floors and can only be reached by tall ladders;
  • A 500 year old secret society of code breakers;
  • A miniature city in the kitchen;
  • A secret underground library;
  • A self-organizing warehouse where the items find you;
  • Google Books, optical character recognition, and spidery book scanners;
  • the history of book printing and typography;
  • and finally: a fantasy epos that contains the key to the solution.
  • And all of the above combined in a quest for a party of adventurers: a rogue (an ex-web developer, now bookstore clerk and main character), a wizard (a Google programmer) and warrior (an entrepeneur, bodybuilder, and best friend of the main character from teenage role-playing times).

It’s like Dan Brown meeting Dungeons&Dragons. And I always knew these crazy books with covers of maidens in chain-mail bikinis were full of wisdom!

But it’s a bit of a pity that some ideas are not worked out well, I thought. The main theme of the book is the contrast between Old (printed books, secret society) and New (Google, computers, algorithms, data visualization). Sloan constructs a scenario where Google focusses all its computational power on decoding a book. No one on the planet can read their emails, because Google is trying sooo hard – and still fails. There must be neater ways to show that the Old contains secrets that even the power of the New can’t crack.

And then there is this global museum inventory system, where a nice lady calls you up if you try to register an item they have already stocked. And exactly because you don’t have security clearance you get invited inside the gigantic warehouse to pick up your stuff yourself. Again … shouldn’t there be neater, easier and more logical ways to make a point and drive a story forward?

Anyhow … I don’t want to be nit-picking. I really enjoyed the book and read it in one go. It’s so full of ideas – you need to see yourself.


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