After searching for any gainful employment, Clay Jannon finds a help-wanted sign in the window of an old bookstore while wandering the streets of San Francisco. As the night-shift clerk for Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Clay discovers that the customers who visit the store mysteriously borrow large obscure books with no ISBN numbers from a back section of the store. Intrigued, Clay models the store and the books within it, but finds an even bigger mystery beyond.
Surprisingly, this story is firmly rooted in its time and place, which isn’t what I was expecting based on the title. Clay is laid off from his job working as the lead graphic designer at a bagel company during the Great Recession. The techie zeitgeist is here, particularly in the passion for technology and the questions of how to bridge old knowledge with the internet. Paired with the hills of San Francisco and the sprawling Google campus, nearly all the characters are young and hip and on the cusp of the next big thing. In this way, I’m reminded of Ready Player One, which is to say it’s written by and for a slim audience and already feels a little dated a decade after it was written.
The plot is much less fantasy and much more mystery, following a series of events involving a secret society and ancient books written in code. The mystery soon leaves the bookstore behind, following more of a quest adventure formula that emulates both the D&D game and favorite fantasy series of Clay’s youth. Paired with excerpts from the fantasy series Dragon-Song Chronicles, I find the book-within-a-book parallel cute but not the enchanting read I was expecting.
I do enjoy the use of modern technology and software to solve old puzzles that an arcane fellowship has been working on for centuries. But I also really like that in the end, despite the internet being the most powerful thing humans have created, it still can’t solve all the puzzles.
Unfortunately, most of the characters lack depth. The protagonist Clay is an every-man millennial who has a degree in design and the power to call upon his much more resourceful friends, including the manic pixie dreamgirl love interest who works at Google and the best friend whose company develops a new model for breasts in video games and who mostly talks about boobs. The characters don’t have personalities per se, instead they have nerdy obsessions like data visualization, archaeology, or fonts, which would have been great layered atop characters who have real histories and psyches.
Recommended as an uplifting book about how much there is about which to be passionate, from old books to museums about knitting, particularly for techie millennials who love museums and Harry Potter.
“The shelves were packed close together, and it felt like I was standing at the border of a forest–not a friendly California forest, either, but an old Transylvanian forest, a forest full of wolves and witches and dagger-wielding bandits all waiting just beyond moonlight’s reach.”