Gillian Bradshaw takes the title of her novel about Archimedes from one of the ancient thinker’s own works. It’s difficult to dramatize intellectual life for the novel’s page, and Bradshaw does well to focus her account on what might be the most dramatic time of her hero’s life: with his father dying and his home island of Sicily invaded by Roman armies during the first Punic War (264 BC), Archimedes is called upon to leave his studies in Alexandria and return to Syracuse. The city-state’s King Hieron quickly discovers the genius he has on his hands and realizes he must do everything in his power to keep Archimedes building catapults for him instead of for Ptolemy in Egypt. Already-entrenched builders, Archimedes’ own preference for more cerebral pursuits and reticence for warfare, a pair of love stories and the very interesting character of Marcus the Roman slave provide the conflicts.
Coming from a family of mathematicians and theoretical physicists myself, I found the portrayal of the Muse-possessed sketcher in sand and spilled wine delightful. Sometimes I felt the tale to be a bit pedestrian in plot, language, and the presentation of another time’s mindset. In less capable hands, it must have faltered. True brilliance, however, arises in a number of places, including the mathematical musings on the old father’s death, the awkward Archimedes’ usage of parabolas and triangles to try and explain interpersonal relationships, and the moral triumph of Marcus the slave. The theme of freedom, exemplified by verses from the Odyssey where more chains, not fewer, keep the hero free from the sirens’ song bring The Sand-Reckoner to the timeless level of the best historical fiction.