fantasy and science fiction book reviewsNapier’s Bones by Derryl MurphyNapier’s Bones by Derryl Murphy

Imagine being able to manipulate numbers to do magic, just as so many fictional wizards manipulate words, as spells, to accomplish their ends. Imagine seeing everything as a number, with formulae streaming into the air from every physical thing, allowing you to bend and change them — using your abilities to smear a license plate into a new number, say, or blurring the serial numbers on dollar bills. It gives new meaning to the word “numerate.”

Derryl Murphy’s protagonist in Napier’s Bones is a numerate. As the novel opens, Dom is seeking an artifact of mathematical power when the numbers throw him far away, onto a bus in a city distant from his search. More than that, he has somehow picked up an adjunct; that is, residing in his body with him is the mind and soul of Billy, another numerate whose physical body died an unknown time ago. Billy remembers little of his past, but he knows that he and Dom are in danger from whatever entity threw them away from the artifact. As the two become acquainted, a young woman, Jenna, joins them at a large park where they are resting in the grass, claiming to be able to “see” Billy as a type of shadow. She can definitely hear the difference in Dom’s voice when Billy is using it; Billy has an English accent. The three are attacked by a series of “search numbers,” and begin a flight that takes them a continent, and ultimately a couple of realities, away.

It’s an interesting conceit, but Murphy doesn’t develop the phenomenon of numeracy as fully as he might. He does not explain how it works, that is, where the numbers come from and how they can be manipulated; he just posits that it is so. It does not appear that those who can manipulate the numbers have any special ability at mathematics of any sort — this isn’t a talent you can develop by becoming highly proficient at arithmetic, geometry or any other discipline, but is an inborn trait. As the trio travels from place to place, obtaining useful artifacts with interesting relationships to numbers (wiring from Apollo 13, for instance, carries substantial “mojo” because the rocket lifted off on the 13th of the month at 1313 hours; Dom explains that “Coincidences like that create a rush of numbers that push their way in, forcing out the bland, everyday number that make up the fabric of life. When they do that, there’s a dynamic that’s created, on the numerates can use to their benefit.” That’s about as much of an explanation as we ever get, and numeracy remains a mystery.

Why John Napier is trying to catch up to them and destroy them, as they eventually figure out, is another mystery that is never resolved. Napier is an historical figure who does not seem to have been evil, as portrayed in this book, though he was thought to have dabbled in necromancy and alchemy. He makes a good foil for the protagonist even if he is never explained, and the novel quickly becomes a fast, action-packed chase story rather than one that explores the magic system that sets the chase in motion.

The ending is a serious letdown from all the action, as things come together too quickly and a couple of deus ex machinas appear to aid the hardy trio of good guys. I was dismayed, for instance, to find out the identity of the Billy persona; there are no real clues to it in what went before. Nor is there any real explanation for Jenna’s sudden facility with quantum mathematics.

In short, this book strikes me as a fascinating idea that is not rendered particularly well. The concept of numeracy is so interesting that I kept reading the book even though I grew progressively more unhappy with Murphy’s failure to make more of it.

Publication Date: 2011. 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.


  • Terry Weyna

    TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She reads all day long as an insurance coverage attorney, and in all her spare time as a reviewer, critic and writer. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, two rambunctious cats, and an enormous library.

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