Libellus de Numeros by Jim West is a self-published well-intentioned earnest debut middle-grade novel that reads, well, like a self-published well-intentioned earnest debut middle-grade novel. One certainly can’t quibble with its goal, presenting young readers — especially girls — with an engaging fantasy tale that incorporates math into its plot so that the audience might become more interested in mathematics, as well as believe that they too can “do” math (and that they can also be the hero of their own lives). Unfortunately, good intentions do not a well-crafted book make, and though it pains me to say, while Libellus de Numeros might be engaging enough for very young audiences, there are so many more better written novels out there that it’s difficult to recommend.
The plot is relatively simple. The young female protagonist Alex has spent much of her life traveling from place to place, school to school, thanks to her oft-absent father’s job as an engineer bringing water to those dying for its lack. One way she compensates for, or channels her anger, is toward the condescending and bullying boys that seem to pop up wherever she moves. After a relatively short bit of exposition showing (or as often telling) the above, Alex is somehow transported to a mysterious land. There she meets Archimedes (yes, that Archimedes), chief wizard of the land’s major (only?) city which faces an imminent attack led by two other wizards. The basis of the magic in this world is math, and so Archimedes takes on Alex as one of his several students in a desperate race to save the city, along with its 100 semi-magical “Guardians.”
The plot, as mentioned, is simple. There’s next to no world-building, with little sense of the City beyond the fact that it has a too-familiar corrupt leadership right out of central casting, as is the school bully with a potential good side that Alex has to deal with. The two villains, meanwhile, are given only a modicum of development, and as with those in the city, little sense of their existence or their world is evident beyond what drives the basic plot. A few good emotional moments surround the lead Guardian, but his arc moves in wholly predictable fashion. Prose, structure, and dialogue, meanwhile, shift mostly between serviceable and clunky/awkward, characters speaking far too often as if they live in our modern world. Finally, for all the intention of making math interesting, there’s surprisingly little math instruction/engagement here, despite being frequently mentioned (the ease and arbitrariness of the magic is another issue).
One can’t fault Lewis for his goal here, but the execution of Libellus de Numeros is lacking for all but the least discerning young reader. Those, as mentioned, may find it engaging enough, but they’d be better off pointed in other directions, such as toward works by Matthew Kirby or Suzanne Collins’ Middle Grade series GREGOR the Overlander.