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Originally published Sunday, October 28, 2012 at 5:01 AM

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'Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore': down the rabbit hole to magical technology

In "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore," an old-fashioned bookstore is the portal to some magical technology, in a novel that combines literary adventure, up-to-the-second technology and ancient knowledge.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore'

by Robin Sloan

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 304 pp., $25

In "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," when Alice tumbles down the rabbit hole, she emerges into a world entirely new, peopled with anthropomorphic creatures whose strange habits are difficult to understand. So it is with the imagined world Robin Sloan has created in her new book for Clay Jannon, a twenty-something who, desperate to pay his rent after the recession took his job, goes to work in a bookstore.

This is not just any bookstore, however. In the front there are a few books, new and used, some of them actually popular at the moment, but the store's real import and purpose is its three-story backroom, replete with untold numbers of volumes filled with musty tomes.

Clay comes to refer to this area as "the Waybacklist." Giant ladders slide along the shelves and a condition of employment is being able to climb to the very top.

Most of the time, nobody buys anything. Clay has the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift, during which two or three regulars come in to borrow one of the books in back. Could anyone spend 40 hours a week in this peculiar situation and not become curious?

Clay succumbs. He climbs that ladder and removes a book, studies it and replaces it.

"I recognize the alphabet — it's roman, which is to say, normal — but not the words. Actually, there aren't really words at all. The pages are just long runs of letters — an undifferentiated jumble."

So begins the heart of this splendid fable. It is far beyond clever. It is gloriously imaginative, an intelligent and literary adventure uniting up-to-the-second technology with ancient knowledge and posing an age-old question about immortality.

Clay enlists two friends to help him suss out what's really going on: Kat Potente, Google employee extraordinaire, and Neel Shah, a friend since sixth grade, when he and Clay bonded over "The Dragon-Song Chronicles." (Neel is now the very successful CEO of his own company, Anatomix.)

The quest — there must be a quest — takes them to New York, following bookstore owner Mr. Penumbra to the Library, the home of the Unbroken Spine.

Corvina is the man in charge there; austere, dismissive of Kat, Clay and Neel and angry with Mr. Penumbra for his interest in new technology. No surprise, since the byword of the cult is "Festina Lente," make haste slowly.

Sloan has fun with names in the story: Penumbra is a shadowy, indefinite or marginal area. Potente is strong and powerful and Corvina is very close to Corvidae — the smart Raven.

Two of Clay's "customers" are Tyndall, the name of a famous 19th-century physicist, and Lapin, a skittery woman who lives in a redoubt high on a San Francisco hill. Maybe Neel Shah and Clay Jannon are anagrams?

Clay, listening to an audio version of his beloved "Dragon-Song Chronicles," provides the catalyst that solves all the riddles — and what a simple and beautiful solution it is.

Sloan also posits an important intersection of print and technology, and states: "There is no immortality that is not built on friendship and work done with care." Don't miss this foray into a consideration of big questions with very satisfying answers.

Cannon Beach, Ore., resident Valerie Ryan owns her local bookstore, the Cannon Beach Book Co.

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