If there's one thing book-lovers (and by that I mean frequent readers, lovers of libraries, booksellers, and authors) can't seem to resist, it's a book-themed book. From bibliophilic mysteries to books featuring lists of books, readers can't seem to read enough books about books. So I was a little nervous about Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan's first novel. It was recommended to me by booksellers and librarians and people who read about as much as I do, but that doesn't mean much of anything: Those recommendations came with a huge side of bias.
I was pleasantly surprised to find a novel about books as they are right now: The narrator, who is not very much of a reader, gets a job at a used bookstore that seems to be losing customers to e-readers. He starts dating a woman who works at Google. She takes him to the Google campus, where he watches an old book being digitized. ("The two cameras are like two eyes, so the images are in 3-D, and I watch his computer lift the words right up off the pale gray pages. It looks like an exorcism.") There's a discussion about e-book DRM, and the narrator uses a book piracy site every now and again. This is a book written (and narrated) by someone who knows about the book industry as it is right now, not a misty, nostalgia-choked world where readers are all saints and authors are all mysterious, benevolent creatures.
Which is not to say it's all set in the real world: Penumbra involves an ancient secret society of readers who are trying to crack some sort of code. It's a cute plot, full of adventure and puzzles, and the main character is suitably charming. Sloan can't quite make the central plot pay off in a way that lives up to the mystery he's built. But with a book like this, the journey is the most important part, and Sloan has found a way to fictionalize the modern landscape of book culture. And what's more, he's managed to make it hopeful, cheery, and youthful. That's a lesson that a lot of book-lovers could take to heart.