Mathemagics, Margaret Ball

Baen, 1996, 341 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-87755-0

In his room, the apprentice is slouched over a tattered grimoire. The room is getting colder as the heat is drained away by the snow storm raging outside the dwelling. But he scarcely notices, as he squints hard at the strange symbols imperfectly reproduced on the paper. To his dismay, he finds that his own annotation do not help him. In fact, they only serve to confuse him further. It takes all of his willpower to continue his study without thinking about the consequences of failure. And yet, the test of his powers will take place in only a few day. How will he be able to prove to his aloof master that he deserves to continue his study? He has long abandoned any thoughts of distinguished honour; he now want only to pass…

Don’t laugh. That’s how I thought about Calculus 101. Strange symbols, weird results, wonderful applications, difficult application, heavy memorization… It did have similarities with magic.

This Math/Magic congruence has been noted by many authors, but few have explored it in as much details as Margaret Ball with her novel Mathemagics. A follow up to a story in Chicks in Chainmail (Ed. Esther Friestner), Mathemagics follows the adventures of Riva Konneva, a warrior woman from an alternate dimension currently in happy matrimony in this universe. She’s here mostly (but not entirely) because of her daughter Salla who, as the novel begins, is driving her teachers crazy at the local high school.

Where’s the math? Well, as you surely know, every warrior deserves its wizard, and the mages in Riva’s reality cast spells with complex mathemagical equations. Indeed, Riva is here to study mathematics, and her chosen male companion in this reality is… a math teacher.

Bringing more fun to the plot are a deviously manipulative mathemagician (ex-lover of Riva, father of Salla) who also crossed to this reality (only to ally with an overambitious fundamentalist preacher) and an alternate-dimension warrior who’s now on every romance novel cover.

But the fun of Mathemagics is less in the plot than in the details surrounding it. In the chapter numbering in mathematical equations (Chapter e^0, chapter 3!, chapter 2^4, etc… The proofs are at the end of the book.) In the hilarious description of a Science Fiction convention gone wrong. In the rehabilitation of romance novels. In the sharply-drawn, very sympathetic characters. In the skewering of the educational system. In the in-jokes.

One could say that Mathemagics is a novel for a specialized readership. To fully enjoy it, one should be versed in fantasy, SF, math, computer science, fandom, education… But fortunately, the novel doesn’t require those elements; I’m sure that most casual readers won’t mind reading about Riva Konneva, suburban warrior woman.

Which isn’t to say that the novel is entirely enjoyable. Half the chapters in Riva’s world could have been cut, or at least shortened. The inclusion of child-harassing traits in the preacher character is not only insufferably cliched, but takes away a chunk of the novel’s lighthearted tone. The style is often too-quickly-paced, with confusing results.

Still, it would be a shame for any SF reader in search of a fun read to miss out on Mathemagics. Margaret Ball obviously known her stuff, both in math and in SF, and the result will bring at least a smile -if not a laugh- to the reader’s face.

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