(A Forge Book), 2000
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
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 matterswe'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 lifeeven
loveis 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
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.