Tom Doherty Associates
(A Forge Book), 2000
ISBN: 0-312-87340-9
Everyone wants to write a historical novel, but only a few authors succeed. Many writers who try the historical form end up with a novel about people with very modern attitudes and speech patterns, in a world which happens to have the details of a past time. Gillian Bradshaw is one writer of historical fiction who consistently triumphs. Her best novels include The Beacon at Alexandria (1986), about the latter days of the Roman Empire, and Island of Ghosts (1998), about Roman Britain. Her latest work, The Sand-Reckoner, tells the story of the great Greek mathematician Archimedes. 
      At the start of the novel, Archimedes is returning from Alexandria to Syracuse with his slave, Marcus. He has two reasons for returning: Syracuse is at war with Rome, and his father is ill. Archimedes only wants to explore the realm of mathematics, "a world without material existence but luminous with pure reason." But he is quickly faced with the responsibilities of looking after his family and working as a catapult engineer for the city. Matters are further complicated when he meets Delia, the charming half-sister of Syracuse's king. Meanwhile, Marcus has his own set of problems with which to contend, especially the need to hide his nationality from the suspicious citizens of Syracuse. 
      Ms. Bradshaw is obviously at home in this world, set in the third century B.C. One of her great talents is making the historical setting seem effortless; the details never appear to be calculated for effect. The reader learns about Archimedean inventions such as the water-snail and the system of compound pulleys, but the descriptions of these innovations are seamlessly integrated into the story. Ms. Bradshaw is a classical literature scholar, and the song translations found here and there in the story are her own. Her style is vivid and lively, well suited to descriptions of scenes such as the one where Archimedes moves a ship single-handedly. 
      Although The Sand-Reckoner makes for satisfying reading in most respects, its protagonist disappoints. Archimedes is primarily an eccentric genius, and many readers will find it hard to relate to his personality and his struggles. He wins our sympathy in scenes such as the one depicting his shock after witnessing his first battle. Others do not understand his attempt to escape into geometry, which comforts him with its eternal principles. When he cries out "It matters—we're the ones who don't!" the reader gets a glimpse of the isolation experienced by those with unusual powers of reason. Too often, though, Archimedes is a slightly comical eccentric, a sort of absent-minded professor. Because this aspect of his personality is over-emphasized so much, the moments when he shows steely determination are not entirely convincing. The love story between Archimedes and Delia also falls somewhat flat. Delia comes across as the more engaging character in these scenes, since she faces the very real problem that Archimedes stands lower socially than she does. However, this could be Ms. Bradshaw's way of showing that everything in Archimedes's life—even love—is secondary to the glory of mathematics. 
      Archimedes's slave, Marcus, is at times a more interesting character than his master. He has to struggle against prejudice, the crippling secret of his nationality, and his growing love for Archimedes's sister. Furthermore, he is uncertain as to just how far his loyalty to Archimedes should take him. This uncertainty sets up several agonizing dilemmas for him. While the reader is fairly certain that things will turn out well for Archimedes, things are usually more ambiguous where Marcus is concerned. 
      The Sand-Reckoner may not be Ms. Bradshaw's best novel to date, but it rises far above many so-called historical novels. As in her other books, the historical background is impeccably researched and presented, and the characters are neither too remote nor too modern. It is worth reading for anyone with an interest in historical fiction, Archimedes, ancient Greece, or the equally ancient pleasure of good writing.