“Your parents are weirdos in the best possible way. They do not celebrate birthdays; never in your life have you received a present on the tenth of December. Instead, you are given books on the days that their authors were born.”
In this prequel to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan takes us back to San Francisco in 1969, where the Summer of Love is winding down, and Mohammad Al-Asmari is still managing the 24-hour bookstore that will one day belong to his protégé. Silicon Valley is starting to take shape south of the city, and the BART is under construction. Visiting this developing city for the first time is Ajax Penumbra, who comes to San Francisco on assignment to acquire a copy of the Techne Tycheon—a lost book of fortunes—for the Galvanic College library where he is employed. When his search leads him to Mo Al-Asmari’s 24-Hour Bookstore, he unexpectedly finds himself entangled with the Unbroken Spine, and the origins of its San Francisco store.
Even more so than in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, the San Francisco setting is a key element of the story, as is the development of the computer age. This short story gives a great feel for late 60s San Francisco, with occasional references back to the city’s origins as a Gold Rush port. Sloan creates neat parallels between Penumbra’s life, the rise of computers, and San Francisco’s development into a tech giant. Ajax Penumbra and Marcus Corvina are introduced, and brought together by a quest very similar to the one that leads to the final fracture in their relationship forty years later. It is easy to see how the two men develop into the characters we meet in the novel. Familiar secondary characters from the novel make appearances as well, though sadly it seems too early for Clark Moffat, author of The Dragon-Song Chronicles, to play any part.
This short story provides an intriguing glimpse into San Francisco’s past, and introduces the rivalry between Penumbra and Corvina with a fun, fast-paced mystery, but it is not an essential addition to the original story.