Wednesday, 30 April 2014

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

Major Spoilers at the End!

Sitting down to write this review makes me feel distinctly curmudgeonly. I didn't love this one, despite its eagerness to be patted, its copious pop culture references, the deep love of books. Given who I am, why didn't that last one, at least, get to me? Maybe because that part felt superficial. Books are like oxygen to me, sometimes, and despite the setting, this book mentioned books a lot, but not with the crazy enthusiasm that gets me about my favourite fellow reviewers. They were mostly set dressing for a more literate Da Vinci Code.

On the other hand, Mr. Penumbra's etc. was a fun read. The characters were lightly drawn, but entertaining. The solving of puzzles was mostly interesting, even though I still shake my head at the last one in the book, and the drawing-room solution.

There's just something missing. The book treads too lightly, I didn't get deeply attached to any of the characters, the action never felt truly perilous, and while that can make for an okay read, I wanted to like this one so much more.

I would say it was telling that I can't even remember the main character's name, but then, names are not always what I remember best. But I can remember Kat and Neel and Mat and Ashley and Corvina and Deckle and.... So maybe the problem isn't that, it's that the main character a) wasn't mentioned by name very often, and b) he wasn't very well developed. He's a struggling young graphic designer who works at a bookstore and loves a certain series of books and used to play D&D. Those are things he does, not things he is. As for his personality? He apparently gets along well enough with a bunch of people not to piss them off, he thinks geek girls are cute (we're getting into things he does again) and he's very loyal to Mr. Penumbra.

I was going to say curious, but he's not really the curious one. It's another friend who goads him into exploring the mysteries of the 24-hour bookstore at which he works. After he gets started, then he's curious.

But I'm being harsh again, which mostly comes from my disappointment that this wasn't better! He's a perfectly fine coatrack on which to hang a plot. And for the plot was fairly entertaining, if slight.

One more digression on characters? The most interesting thing about any of the characters was how personally offended Kat was by the very idea of death. We know this, because she says it constantly, and it's interesting, and I'm not looking for a deep psychoanalytical look at this, but some exploration would be nice. Death is frustrating, sure, but what drives it to be a constant burr under her saddle?

As for the plot? When the main character starts work at the 24-hour bookstore, he quickly notices that there are two sets of books. A small set for browsers, and a huge set of ones filled with what looks like nonsense. They're a test, you see. Once you decode one, it leads to another, and another, until you've solved the first puzzle in a mysterious brotherhood that believes that in the puzzle of the book written by the founder of the order centuries ago is the secret of eternal life.

But nobody can crack the damn thing. Well, what about Google? Enlisting the help of the woman he dates sometimes, his former dungeonmaster turned millionaire boob-renderer, and Mr. Penumbra himself, he breaks into the secret lair to get a copy of the book, and then turn it over to the codebreakers of the world.

This is all fun. As I said, a more literate and pop culture Da Vinci Code.

Spoiler! Spoiler! Spoiler!

But the ending, when it came, dissatisfied me, and this cast a pall over the rest of the book. There were two problems with it. Interestingly, one of them came from the fact that I was reading this on a Kindle, and it's hard to flip back to double-check something you might or might not have missed on a Kindle. So when it came out that the solution, which Google couldn't solve, was a simple substitution cipher, just on the sides of the letters instead of the letters themselves, that bothered me. Because even if that were the case, there would still be regularities in which letters were used after which letters, since the letters were cast in typeset, so would have to be used in certain patterns to get the code across.

Am I missing something? I may be, but I've worked on an augmented reality game and let me tell you, there is no substitution code the internet cannot break in seconds, given enough people. You've got to go harder. Why not use a Vignere cipher, at very least? That can be broken too, given enough time, but it's really hard without knowing the encoding phrase.

So maybe there's another layer here I missed as I was reading that explains why this substitution cipher couldn't be broken like any other substitution cipher, but again, hard to flip back and find it. So I remain a little dissatisfied with that solution. At very least, the book would not have come across as noise. Even if you couldn't figure out the actual message it would be very apparent that there were some regularities in how letters were being used.

And then the message underneath it all, in addition to the decoded book? It was nice that it wasn't the secret of life, but did the final message really have to be a wordier version of "friendship is great"? That seems a little saccharine a reward for all that journey.

That is my problem with the book. For most of it, it was slight but enjoyable. But the ending did not live up to the great message they were seeking. It doesn't have to be immortality, but it needs to be a more genuine insight.

So, do I recommend this? I don't know. As I said at the beginning, not being thrilled with this book makes me feel like the curmudgeon. I don't mind heartwarming, I just want books to have earned it. But it's light, and fun, for the most part. The pop culture references veer between fun and trying too hard to be hip.

Also, why isn't this book about Kat? She's far more interesting a character than old What's-His-Name.

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