[WARNING: This review contains one minor spoiler about the book's premise and central theme, and the theme is the book's best asset, so I feel it's necessary to include. Skip the second paragraph if you want to go in completely fresh.]
I hadn’t read anything about this novel when I started it. From the title, I was expecting a nostalgic ode to physical bookstores and a standard-model 20-something slacker love story, like a Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium for the book nerd set.
I did not expect a novel whose central theme necessitated a battle between the book-scanning robots at Google and a cabal of physical-book traditionalists.
While there are stock characters and stock plot devices, the immediacy of that grand theme carries enough weight to counterbalance them. This book gets quite close to being a quality read, but then the novel is finally done in by what you might call Sloan’s “flow.” It’s not his style, exactly, not his prose, and it’s not his characters. It’s how things happen in his scenes. It’s how he directs the action, because—even though the book is narrated by its main character—Sloan’s hand can be felt unmistakably on every page. And that’s not good.
Sloan’s talents don’t lie in creating original characters. The main character, Clay Jannon, is an off-the-shelf model of smart-but-underemployed, romantic but cynical, everyman 20-something contemporary hero. His love interest, Kat Potente, is an off-the-shelf model of super-savvy girlfriend. Mr. Penumbra is a standard wise mentor, slightly more benign, even, than most. The list goes on.
Sloan’s best attribute is his plotting, including how he fits these standard-model characters into a premise whose features individually feel familiar, and he winds up with an original story.
Clay starts working for Mr. Penumbra, whose bookstore, obviously, stays open 24 hours a day. Clay sells about one book a week; instead of sales, he finds himself loaning out books to the eccentric members of some kind of club. In fact, the vast bulk of Penumbra’s inventory consists of ancient leather-bound tomes that can only be lent, never sold.
Clay, of course, begins to investigate, calls in some friends, and discovers that the bookstore is barely a bookstore at all, it’s the tip of a tendril of something much larger.
Sloan organizes his pieces in interesting ways, and though he does a bit too much of the Dan Brown cut-away-from-the-next-clue technique (“Aha!” says a character. “The secret is—” end of chapter), he ties the threads together neatly, and the resolution satisfies.
The major problem, again, is the precise way Sloan’s characters move, the way they feel too often like pieces on a chess board and never quite like real people.
Like this exchange, the first time Clay brings Kat Potente (a Google programmer) and Mr. Penumbra (a bookstore owner with barely an email address) together. Mr. Penumbra speaks first:
“[We] believed there were deep truths hidden in the writing of the ancients—among them, the answer to our greatest question.”
There’s a pregnant pause. I clear my throat. “What’s … our greatest question?”
Kat breathes. “How do you live forever?”
Penumbra turns and levels his gaze on her. He eyes are big and bright and he nods yes.
You could nitpick this passage a lot (For instance, “Kat breathes” is a super-lame interstitial—of course she breathes.) You could definitely take issue with living forever being “the greatest question” mankind can think of.
But the underlying problem here is that Sloan contorts the personalities of two vastly different characters, and he makes them both come up with the same (“right”) answer to an impossible prompt in order to end this scene with a dramatic flourish.
Charitably, I can imagine that Sloan wants to establish that ebook-reading Googlers and tome-worshipping Luddites have the same goals, but he posits this idea in a terrible way. I doubt that any two people would answer that question the same way, let alone two from such vastly different backgrounds. While it makes sense (for reasons I won’t spoil) why Penumbra believes this is the greatest question, Kat Potente has been specializing in data visualization. By forcing her to come to the same conclusion, Sloan reveals too much of himself from behind the authorial curtain.
A better tack might’ve been to have Penumbra plant the idea of immortality in Kat’s mind, and then have her throw her considerable Google resources at it. But solving this one issue would be a drop in the bucket. Sloan does this kind of thing often enough that it’s impossible to think of this novel as a distinct world, with an internal reality. This sensation alone is not enough to ruin a novel, but it is enough to tip the balance in this case (along with a disappointing ending).
All in all, it was a great idea, and it breathed new life into bland subject matter, but the execution did not do justice to the foundation. I’ll be watching for Sloan’s next book, but I can’t recommend this one.