Ajax Penumbra 1969

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Ajax Penumbra 1969 by Robin Sloan, book review“I should start at the beginning.”
“You should start with the basics.” The clerk settles back on his stool, crosses his arms. “What’s your name, friend?”
“Oh. Yes, of course. My name is Ajax Penumbra.”

For those of you who read Robin Sloan’s endearing debut novel Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore, you will have read a wonderful story but also a story that left you with several burning questions. How did a narrow bookstore with such impossibly high shelves come about? How did Mr Penumbra come to run such an establishment? And indeed, how do you get a name like Ajax Penumbra? These questions must have been put to Sloan on a great many occasions, because now he has seen fit to release a short prequel: Ajax Penumbra 1969.

We meet Ajax as a young English student at Galvanic College, a small establishment of higher education in Illinois that offers obscure courses in occult literature. The young Penumbra proves an excellent student in this area, and as he approaches graduation, he finds himself offered a post with the college’s library as an Acquisitions Apprentice. Several years of study follow, in languages, literature and classics, a “graduate programme in all but degree”. Only then is Penumbra raised to the rank of Junior Acquisitions Officer and sent out into the real world on his first mission: to acquire an archaic tome called the Techne Tycheon: the art of fortune.

Penumbra searches through archives and libraries, finally tracking down a single volume of this mysterious work to nineteenth century San Francisco, connected to a book seller called William Gray. By now it is 1969 and the summer of love is fully underway in the city, but Penumbra is oblivious to the groovy vibes that surround him as he searches the city high and low for the lost book. It is only when, just as he is about to return to Galvanic and admit defeat, that his nocturnal wanderings take him past a 24 Hour Bookstore full of hippies who may or may not be buying books inside. He enters, and finds a shop with a few tables of regular books set out at the front – but at the back stand dizzyingly high shelves populated by old-looking, leather bound volumes. Better still, the clerk is the first person he has met to have heard of William Gray. His search for the Tycheon may just have had a breakthrough.

I loved the original Mr Penumbra novel, and was delighted to find another portal into this world of literary adventure. The fusion of very old books and the possibilities of emerging technology (Penumbra’s best friend and college roommate is one of the earliest computer scientists) once again presented an engaging mix, but the quest of the Tycheon is almost a side note. The real wonder of the book lies in getting to know Penumbra and his world, and learning a little more about how things came to be. It filled in several of the blanks left from the original novel and I enjoyed it, but I have one complaint: at only 78 pages it was far too short, more a short story than a novella. I would love to see a collection of such short stories set in this universe put together by Sloan, but for now we will just have to do with this as (hopefully) an appetiser.

Recommended, although a little pricey at £7.99 for the hardback; a must for anyone who enjoyed Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore.

Ajax Penumbra 1969 by Robin Sloan
Published by Atlantic Books, June 2014
With thanks to the publishers for providing this review copy.


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Ajax Penumbra 1969
by Robin Sloan

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Written by collingwood21
collingwood21

Collingwood21 is a 32 year old university administrator and ex-pat northerner living down south. Married. Over-educated. Loves books, history, archaeology and writing.

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