Real Simple’s No-Obligation Book Club discusses the final two sections of Robin Sloan’s intriguing novel.

With the failure of the Great Decoding Project, Clay is back at square one, or even square negative one, since Mr. Penumbra is gone, he’s on the outs with Kat, and the San Francisco Unbroken Spine novices are about to join Corvina in New York City. But for what? Is there really a code in Manutius that can be deciphered? Clay blames himself for the failures all around. (By the way, I’ve read some reviews that took author Robin Sloan to task for glorifying Google, but I didn’t get that sense; I thought he definitely expressed admiration for the company, but he skewered it as well. What do you think?)

In the meantime, The Dragon-Song Chronicles Part III—written by a member of the fellowship, Clark Moffat—seems to mirror Clay’s thoughts. In fact, he realizes the books are very much connected to the goings-on at the Unbroken Spine when he stumbles upon a clue in the audiobook, a line that was not in the printed version.

Why do you think Clay uses a written letter—a most retro form of communication if ever there was one—to get in touch with Edgar Deckle (any odes to the Unbroken Spine aside)? And doesn’t he seem disappointed when Deckle doesn’t respond in kind?

In any case, Deckle and Clay have a rather surprising video chat—surprising because (1) Deckle isn’t mad about the Google code-busting attempt, (2) he refuses to give Clay info on how to locate Mr. Penumbra, but (3) he’s willing to trade it for the completion of a seemingly impossible task: finding small pieces of Gerritszoon type stolen a hundred years ago. A crazy quest (but one that would certainly appeal to a devotee of The Dragon-Song Chronicles).

And yet, using a combination of old-fashion brainpower and newfangled computer might, the punches are located in the blandly everyday warehouses of Consolidated Universal Long-Term Storage (in a scene out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the powerful ark itself is packed away in some anonymous government facility). It’s on his return to San Francisco from rescuing the type punches that Clay realizes what The Dragon-Song Chronicles Part III really is: the codex vitae of Clark Moffat.

Do you think it was a coincidence that Clay ended up at Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore? It’s his combined knowledge of The Dragon-Song Chronicles and the Unbroken Spine that lead him to the big reveal about the code in Manutius (a reveal that’s straight out of Agatha Christie, I might add). And when that moment comes, the message that Clay delivers is sweet and smart but hardly surprising: There is no secret to immortality; we live on through our works and ideas, our thoughts and our words. And the key to life is friendship.

What did you think of the secret message from Gerritszoon? Were you expecting more? To me, the truth of it is in its utter simplicity.

At its end, we find that friendship is the key to this book, too. Just as Manutius and Gerritszoon prospered from their friendship, so did Clay prosper from his friendships and so will his pals prosper from their friendship with him. Now Clay and Mr. Penumbra will join forces and live at that juncture we read about earlier: of books and technology.

And the last five paragraphs of our story read, to me, like the author talking directly to us: as Robin Sloan, not as Clay Jannon. As someone who works in digital but clearly loves print. As someone who knows what it means to find the exact right book at the exact right time.

Bookies, this concludes not only Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore but our final book of 2012. We’ll pick up again on the other side of New Year’s, when Catherine Oddenino, the director of business development for, kicks off discussion of our January book, Where’d You Go, Bernadette,  by Maria Semple.

Until then, I wish you all happy, peaceful, and joyous holidays.



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