The Short Version: Clay Jannon, yet another dot-com recession victim, needs a job. Against all odds, he finds himself employed as the late-night clerk for Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore – a strange-beyond-strange little shop in San Francisco. He quickly discovers the truth behind the odd “club” of lenders and, along with a few friends, begins to delve into a centuries-old mystery with the help of some decidedly 21st Century technology.
The Review: What a charming book.
It’s not terribly easy to connect the rapidly advancing technological world to the world of literature without coming off as either a sort of doomsday prophet (books are dying!) or a curmudgeonly stick in the mud (I’ll die first!). Too often, we are dividing our future into camps – when, in reality, we know from history that it’s quite a bit more likely that these things will come to co-exist, in some way. And that coexistence between technology and antiquity (TK and OK, to steal some terms from the book) is what Sloan pulls off so seemingly effortlessly here. A character who builds painstakingly realistic models and practical special effects exists quite comfortably alongside a Singularity-embracing Googler. It doesn’t feel forced, it doesn’t feel contrived… all of these people just feel completely honest and peaceful amongst one another. Is that just how it is in San Francisco? They’re all super quirky, of course – but none of them ever feel like they’re written in capital letters or quirky for the sake of story. Instead, they feel like individuals – the kind of people we all know, with strange obsessions and funny tics. Even Kat, who at times veers dangerously close to being a MPDG, is redeemed by her independence: she could’ve just been a foil for our hero but instead she’s her own person, along for the ride. [ed. note – Dear other writers in the world, please note: it should not be surprising to find a quirky girl character who does more than provide a foil to the male hero. Be better.]
Sloan’s voice – a winking, wry internal monologue of sorts from our main character, Clay – is refreshing in its simplicity. It comes across as a mix between journal and narrative, providing us with elided moments as opposed to explained ones. For example, every single time Kat and Clay start to get romantic, the scene sort of stretches like going into hyperspeed and suddenly we’re on the other side of it. It’s Clay keeping things private in an age when we’re all encouraged to splash the details of everything everywhere – and whether or not that was Sloan’s intention, it’s a delightful result. But also, we get fun quirks of text – like each time Clay “wonders” something, we realize that he has wondered it aloud without saying that he said the thing. Or when Clay answers someone’s question internally, as people so often do – and it provides a fun internal-monologue-style voice. In fact, Sloan even references Clay being “familiar” with the internal monologue, in one of those meta-quirks that writers who love writing pull off the best.
Written in a time just before Google, erm, went a little evil (although it does predict, wonderfully, Google’s latest announcement: the self-driving car), it’s a joy to see the way that the libraries of information housed within the Googleplex are mirrored to the libraries of literal information housed across the world by the Unbroken Spine. Penumbra’s shop, for example, reaching to strange teetering heights of books, when computerized… the two things have a remarkable resonance with each other, as opposed to canceling each other out or causing some sort of rift in space-time. It’s just cool to see someone taking the side of compatibility when, so often, we read op-ed after op-ed about how the device is killing the printed page and how the big boxes (online or otherwise) are strangling the little indie stores. It’s an idyll, sure, but it’s a nice one.
As for the plot – it was far more adventurous than one might be led to expect, although the adventure also happens in a somewhat ‘safe’ way. There is never much danger for our heroes and that’s perhaps the only thing missing from the story. The only danger is running out of time. Not in the “ticking bomb” kind of way, either – but just in the “we’re gonna die someday” way. Even the battle between progress and tradition feels less-than-urgent at times, even while the ‘quest’ to decipher this wondrous puzzle propels the narrative forward. Ajax Penumbra 1969, the short novella prequel published last year, seemed to imply a bit more derring-do – even a bit more of the occult and supernatural. But, then, perhaps the Unbroken Spine and its devotees are only one aspect of the literary occult world and Ajax was our blink into those other realms. I’m not sure what it did to me, reading the novella first – whether or not I would suggest reading this, then that, as opposed to the way I did. It was nice to see the store again and I think I understood a little bit of the history – but I’d forgotten entirely about Corvina. So, I guess, I don’t really know that either way is better. Do as you will.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. A joy of a story, devourable in a few large bites – but all the more savory for it. It’s a love letter to both the written word and to technological advancement, because Sloan realizes the answer to the ultimate question: “How do we live forever?” It might, sure, eventually be an attainable goal. The fine folks at Google may well discover a way to indefinitely prolong our lifespans. But you know what else works? Writing something down. Even easier: just telling a story – even if it’s just one, just your own, the story of your life that you write every day of your life. That’s a different kind of immortality than we might expect but it’s immortality nonetheless, isn’t it? Sloan says yes and he doesn’t it without much in the way of cliché – and I say yes, too.