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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

"Napier's Bones" by Derryl Murphy (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Derryl Murphy Website
Order Napier's Bones HERE

INTRODUCTION: Napier's Bones is a novel that attracted my attention for two reasons: first as being published by Chi-Zine which so far never put a book out that "felt for me" and disappointed; second the blurb is irresistible for someone who grew up with Martin Gardner's superb popular math books as huge favorites, including the irresistible Dr. Matrix, numerologist of world fame whose exploits were always fun to read, not to speak of making one wonder at the human ingenuity in finding the most abstruse patterns everywhere.

What if, in a world where mathematics could be magic, the thing you desired most was also trying to kill you?
Dom is a numerate, someone able to see and control numbers and use them as a form of magic. While seeking a mathematical item of immense power that has only been whispered about, it all goes south for Dom, and he finds himself on the run across three countries on two continents, with two unlikely companions in tow and a numerate of unfathomable strength hot on his tail. Along the way are giant creatures of stone and earth, statues come alive, numerical wonders cast over hundreds of years, and the very real possibility that he won't make it out of this alive. And both of his companions have secrets so deep that even they aren't aware of them, and one of those secrets could make for a seismic shift in how Dom and all other numerates see and interact with the world.
OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: "Napier's Bones" is a very entertaining and fast moving read set in a world in which numerology is power at least for the people who can sense and manipulate numbers and their patterns; the more unusual the patterns and artifacts associated with them, the more power they give to the "numerates" that possess them. And of course nothing is more powerful than the original title artifacts who have been lost in the midst of time after the assumed death of their creator, the Scottish mathematician John Napier of the logarithm fame.

The novel starts explosively with a numerical battle in the Utah desert, where our main character, a powerful but relatively young numerate of many identities, generally known as Dom, is caught in the aftermath of a duel between unknown numerates of extreme power. This first page paragraph gives a good idea of how the book goes and of course it made me read the book on the spot since having logarithms flying through the air is contemporary magic I can believe in:

"There was a rustling sound from overhead, and he looked up to see a series of logarithms flapping by like wiry bats, dipping and diving through the air before breaking up into their constituent numbers and, with nothing left to hold them together, quickly fading away."
Knocked unconscious by the ripples of the number battle, Dom awakes himself on a bus and with a shadow - a ghost or "psychic essence" of a powerful numerate of long ago who lives inside the head of other numerates, usually in peaceful cohabitation. Here is the ghost "Billy" explaining:

“We didn’t. A duel was the last thing we wanted; her numbers and formulae were far beyond anything my host had ever seen before.”
“So what happened?” asked Dom, afraid he already knew the answer.
“My host was killed, while our foe was seemingly incapacitated. My host’s last act,” here the voice broke, “was to cut me loose. I had not quite a twenty-three second window before I would have fractioned, and I knew where you were.”
Arriving in a town in the middle of nowhere and entering a grocery store to get some food, Dom and Billy meet Jenna, a young student that works there and who is also a numerate without knowing it - here Jenna introduces herself to Dom by talking about the ghost - aka Billy - she perceives following him:

“It’s like a blurry shadow, hard to tell exactly what it is,” she said.
“But I see it slide in and out of you, and I can see even from a distance when it’s the one doing the talking.”
And this is how it starts, with the destroyer of Billy's former host in hot pursuit, Dom, Jenna and Billy scrambling to get away, meeting mysterious benefactors and of course finding out what's what and what they need to do to save the world.

Since after all the novel is conventional Urban Fantasy formula in structure - evil being with superpowers, awakened in our day and time wants to take over and change all, good guys have to stop it but to start they are too "puny", so there are chases, hidden powers, unexpected allies and all the paraphernalia of traditional fantasy set in our world and time - but the content made it really worth and the author has a flowing style that kept the pages turning.

The numerological stuff in the novel is as good as anything I've read and the action is fast and furious with no let-up till the powerful climax. The character roles are the expected ones, but with enough specific traits to make them distinctive - even if still relatively stock - and some of the major twists are easily seen but the writing flows well, the pages turn by themselves and the book is a very entertaining reading experience with a great ending.

I think that if you are a math aficionado or a fan of Urban Fantasy that goes beyond vampires and zombies, you have to try Napier Bones (A+ for superb content and very good execution) since the author makes the premise work with brio. While the book is a standalone with a definite ending, there is a lot of scope for more in the intriguing numerological universe of Derryl Murphy and I would be quite interested in such.


S.L. Stevens said...

My fiance loves math. He'd really enjoy this book. I'll have to buy it for him.

Mark Lawrence said...

well I've got a Ph.D in mathematics & have mathmagicians in my own book, so it looks like I should read this one!

Liviu said...

I have a PhD in math too - though I have left academia once I got it 14 years ago, but I still read the occasional paper - and the book is definitely not jarring for anyone with advanced math knowledge like say one recent critically acclaimed sf novel where the author was talking about differential equations without really having a clue what they are and that annoyed the heck out of me.

On the other hand Napier Bones is very accessible to anyone, but I agree that enjoying numerological coincidences and math generally gives an extra kick.

As for Prince of Thorns - my co-editor Robert has a review copy and I am really curious how it's going to be - I plan to check it out whenever I will have a chance and having "mathmagicians" gives an added impulse for sure.

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