Recession has shuffled clay Jannon out of his life as a Web-design drone and serendipity coupled with sheer curiosity has lnded him a new job working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. And it doesn't take long for clay to realise that the quiet, dusty book emporium is even more curious than the name suggests. There are only a few fanatically committed customers, but they never seem to actually buy anything, instead they simply borrow impossibly obscure volumes perched on dangerously high shelves, all according to some elaborate arrangement with the eccentric proprietor.
The store must be a front for something larger, Clay concludes, and soon he has plugged in his laptop, roped in his friends (and a cute girl who works for Google), and embarked on a high-tech analysis of the customers' behaviour. What they discover is an ancient secret that can only be solved by modern means, and a global conspiracy guarded by Mr. Penumbra himself... who has mysteriously disappeared.
Let's start with the cast. There's Clay (and really what kind of Gary Stu name is Clay Jannon, but okay), his oldest friend Neel, and his roommates Mat and Ashley. There's Mr Penumbra. There's Mr Penumbra's customers: Maurice Tyndall, Muriel, Rosemary, Mr Fedorov. There's the other clerk in the store, Oliver. And there's Clay's new friend/gf, Kat. There's also Marcus Corvina, Eric, Igor, Jad, Mr Al-Asmari, Finn, Raj, Amy, Prakesh, Clark Moffat, an unnamed stripper, and a lot of cult members, most of whom seem to be male.
TL;DR: In this pretty exhaustive list we find a total of 6 women and at least 19 men.
Now, that doesn't necessarily have to be so bad... Maybe they're really great women characters!
Well. Muriel is pretty cool. So is Rosemary Lapin. They're both old ladies. Kat and Ashley... well. The first thing said about Ashley is that she's beautiful. It is then implied that she's too perfect to be real - too pretty, too successful, too neat, too structured. As Clay puts it, "At first I thought I had a crush on her, but then I realised that she's an android."
Mat somehow manages to date her though. Yes, that is how it's portrayed. As some mystical accomplishment. Because girls are impossible to understand, right? Unpredictable, inscrutable, never-know-where-you-stand beings from Venus, who must be wowed, wooed, and won, but are pretty cool, once you have one.
Then there's Kat. Sadly, the somewhat patronising "a cute girl who works at Google" in the blurb is kinda fitting. She wears the same t-shirt all the time. A red one, that says BAM! in yellow letters. (Her identifying badge as a Geek Girl, I presume?) She literally has a dozen such t-shirts, to avoid "wasting brain cycles" thinking about clothes in the morning. She also has weird obsessions and boundless energy. Oh dear, we seem to be moving into manic pixie territory...
Kat is a genius computer code person who works at Google, and Clay decides he will "impress her with a prototype" (this is not the fifties, Robin Sloan, girls will date you even if you do not perform feats of strength before them).
It should however be noted that despite her "non-girly" interests (all things digital, Blade Runner and Planet of the Apes, xkcd comics), Kat is not a Nerd. Girls aren't Nerds. Girls don't get into Nerdy things and they certainly don't date Nerds. Which is presumably why Clay is so desperate to not have it mentioned in her hearing that he and Neel were really into "Rockets and Warlocks" in 6th grade and still occasionally use each other's R&W names for each other as a sort of bro code thing. Girls must not hear such things. She'll think it's not Cool. She'll totally break up with him over it or something. Give me a break.
Now for the really good stuff though: Neel Shah, supreme Nerd in 6th grade and Clay's best friend, now has his own company doing animation for video games. That's pretty cool! But his specialisation - is boobs. That's right. He's taken objectifying women to a whole new level. His company even makes video game boobs modeled after old Hollywood stars! Super realistic and classy, or something.
The book is totally aware that this is ridiculous, but it sort of chuckles good-naturedly at it. It's not like he's contributing to some of the shittier aspects of the video game industry or anything! Boobs are fun!
Reference is also made to Neel's tax shelter, the Neel Shah Foundation for Women In the Arts. Haha. Because it's not like women in the arts need extra funding. Lol, what a joke. Clay confides to the reader that he had to design a website for this fake fund "to make it look more legit", and it was the second most depressing thing he ever designed. I don't think he means because Neel is a sexist jerk...
And just to complete the Casual Sexism Bingo, there is a cheap shot at Scarlett Johansson. Apparently Neel has "documents with her signature on them" because he's going to collaborate with movie studios and work his boob magic. And we all know ScarJo is just a pair of great tits, right!? (The totally ironic thing is that Neel is explicitly anti-racist, and has refused to create software to help Homeland Security visualise bodies under heavy clothing such as burkas. Because that's "gross".)
If ANY of this were recognised as somewhat disgusting, I would be fine with it, but no. It's just meant to be funny. Clay, and I suspect Mr Sloan, is the epitome of your "classical" nerd, who's deeply into fantasy novels, superheroes, the internet (he heroworships an anonymous hacker who calls himself Grumble), video games, and RPGs. Clay, reading fantasy, "used to dream of hot girl wizards" (really??). In a supreme stroke of irony, I think the authors of the novels he read would have wept over readers like him. He seems to view girls and women primarily as objects to be acquired or ogled. I've already mentioned the "girls must be won" mentality, and Clay is also fairly patronising to Kat when she starts going on about her obsessions (mainly immortality). The plot would have worked out just as well with Kat simply being Clay's friend, and their relationship felt a lot like "good guy nerd is rewarded with manic pixie dream girl". I personally kept hoping they would break up.
*deep breath* TO CONCLUDE, I actually got to the point of writing angry pencil comments in the margins of this book, something I usually never do, and honestly I can't recommend it to anyone. The idea is good, the execution is fine, and for a long time I was okay with the novel, but right now I just have this faint icky feeling at the thought that I gave Robin Sloan my money. Which is not a good feeling to have.