Thursday, January 6, 2011

Review: Napier's Bones, by Derryl Murphy

To be published: March 2011

Math is the language of the universe. A bold statement, but a true one. Dialects and language barriers divide our world into smaller and smaller pieces, but mathematics remains a universal constant—a reality we can use to define one another and the means by which our world and all worlds exist, rather than the verisimilitude faith and social artifices provide. Mathematical rules—numbers and nigh-unfathomable calculations, to be more precise—are the heart of Derryl Murphy’s upcoming supernatural thriller from ChiZine Publications. Most interestingly, Napier’s Bones posits a question that gives credence to the axiom that math is indeed the backbone of our universe by looking at the numbers that surround us—those we see and those we don’t—through the guise of the fantastic that the perceived rigidity of mathematics seeks to undermine: What if math could be magic?

Able to manipulate numbers as if they were magical tools and spells, Dom, a numerate, is seeking an item of unfathomable strength—a mathematically imbued treasure of such power that if it were to fall into the wrong hands, could change the world. Together with Jenna, a fledgling numerate still discovering her abilities, and Billy, the long-dead, disembodied voice of a former numerate inhabiting Dom’s mind and body, the trio must cross country and continent to track down the item, all while eluding a mysterious numerate of almost mythic strength.

Napier’s Bones is something of an original beast—a melding of historical, cultural, mystical, and mathematical conceits that comfortably co-exist in Murphy’s vision of our world, a world ignorant of the hard science at the core of everything, even those elements seemingly supernatural or mystical in origin. The pacing is tight throughout; the book reads with the speed and buoyancy of a pulp novel that has been paired with logarithms, numerical swarms of oncoming death, and stone giants from ages past, yet it all comes together as a complete—and sometimes descriptively sparse—narrative.

Near the middle of the book, the sense of magic and impossibility begins to impose on the mathematical rules of the world, as the numbers begin to feel more and more as if they are a part of the very atmosphere, seeping out from the pores of the earth, rather than continuing to have something of a grounding in reality. As a result, what started out as a work that tread the lines between the axiom and fantasy lost a little of the charmingly obsessive detail it first presented the reader with. However, this is a small, niggling thing that barely scrapes away any of the original paint on a model that is altogether unique.

With Napier’s Bones, Derryl Murphy has given readers a new toy box to play in, one with a set of rules so widely accepted and understood that, regardless of the fantastical nature of the narrative and characters, our feet remain firmly on the ground. That, and an ending that screams out for a sequel of mathematically mind-numbing complexity, is a surprising and all too rare treat.