When you think about it, words are kind of overrepresented in the realm
of magic: Spells and incantations, the power of true names and
invocations are familiar features in all flavors of fantasy. Numbers, by
contrast, tend to be more mundane — aside from certain figures that
have accreted some amount of superstitious significance, numbers have,
by and large, been seen as more mechanical than mystical, at least until
Derryl Murphy got his hands on them.
The Aurora-nominated novel Napier’s Bones mixes magical chocolate with numerical peanut butter to create a tasty blend of fantasy and science fiction (wrapped in package that features a fine specimen of Erik Mohr’s striking cover art, to boot). It’s a simple twist on an old formula and it creates a world that’s a lot of fun to explore. (I’d happily watch a procedural television show set in the Napier’s Bones universe where we follow a numerate forensics team as they unravel numerical crimes each week, or some variation thereof.) The story incorporates enough fantasy staples that it’s easy to settle in for the ride, but it avoids riding those rails to a predictable ending.
Dom is a numerate and — almost by definition — a loner and autodidact. There’s no Hogwarts for this kind of magic and only the most tenuous of communities among those who have the gift of manipulating numbers. He’s doing all right for himself until he gets too close to a powerful numerical artefact, and before he knows it he’s got himself a couple of companions. The first is Billy, the spirit of a long-dead numerate (known as an adjunct) who’s been cohabiting in Dom’s body ever since his brush with the artefact. The other is Jenna, an untrained numerate who meets Dom at just the wrong (or right) time, and whom he agrees to take under his wing. Together they find themselves on the run from an unknown but dangerous rival, until it becomes clear that they won’t be able to hide from their pursuer forever.
Murphy is primarily known for his shorter fiction, and even given the space of a novel to tell his tale, he doesn’t waste any time in moving things along. The story’s wheels are in motion almost before the first page, and the momentum rarely slackens. Some of the most enjoyable moments are in the first part of the book when Dom’s numerical tricks and rituals are described, from the way he picks up bank details and PIN numbers lingering around an ATM to his collection of mojo. These prized objects serve as talismans for numerates, either as a form of protection or a focus for their abilities. Each is connected to an event of numerical significance (usually sports-related in Dom’s case), which provides the occasion for some fun numerical trivia along the way.
It’s in part two that the quest really kicks in, when Dom and his companions realize not only that running indefinitely isn’t a viable option, but that they’ve been chosen to protect the world from the adjunct of John Napier, who has found himself a host and wants nothing more than to find a special set of his eponymous bones, which will help him regain his own corporeal form. Their mission — which they have hardly any choice but to accept — takes them to Scotland, where driving on the wrong side of the road is the least of the strange and disorienting things that they have to deal with.
By the third and final part of the book Dom and his friends have uncovered even more layers to the world of numeracy and the weirdness is elevated to a whole new level. Dom, previously streetwise and confident, is reduced several times to wondering aloud what the hell is going on, and one can hardly blame him as he navigates a bewildering combination of Old World magic and the power of numbers as he’s never encountered them before. In the end, Dom makes it through, but it is Billy and Jenna’s journeys that feel the most complete.
I’ve been careful here to speak of numbers rather than mathematics, as the central conceit of the novel doesn’t really resemble mathematics as such. Dom even says during one of Jenna’s early lessons, “Do you think I went to university and studied math and even learned how to write and read a formula of any type? [And] it’s a good possibility that Billy here was anything but a mathematician.” (He’s right.) What Dom and his fellow numerates do is more ineffable than math. They may have an affinity for primes and the like, but things like formulae and the various types of numbers they work with — integers, fractions, and irrational numbers — are simply handy labels for the elements of their particular magic system that happen to have specific meanings in our own world. The numerological denouement is more satisfying on a conceptual level than it is in the technical details — which is to say that if your idea of a good number-centric narrative is the story behind the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, you may be a little disappointed by this book. It’s more John Nash in his less rational moments than it is Andrew Wiles.
But if you’re willing to go along with numeracy as a form of magic, and a story that tips the scales a bit more on the event-driven side of things than the character-driven side, Napier’s Bones is a pretty entertaining read. It’s nice to have the fictional spotlight on a figure like Napier rather than Da Vinci for a change. And there are some great moments when Dom and his companions’ flight from Napier takes them through Alberta before they make the jump to Scotland. The Aurora nomination and recognition Murphy has received for this novel is well-deserved.
Voting for the Prix Aurora is underway from now until July 23. See our previous reviews of this year’s nominees: Eutopia by David Nickle and Wonder by Robert J. Sawyer.