a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Peculiarities (2021)
David Liss

Thomas Thresher, the youngest descendant of the founder of Thresher's Bank in London, has problems. For one thing, Walter Thresher, the current bank director, has trapped him in a dead-end job as a bank clerk. Walter also absolutely insists that Thomas must marry a Jewish woman he barely knows. Moreover, Thomas is suffering from the Peculiarities, a horrific curse that has befallen England just before the end of the 19th century which includes deadly fog, lycanthropy, and ghostlike serial killers who mostly stalk the poor. Thomas himself is slowly turning into a tree.

The book has an unusual mixture of a Victorian atmosphere, fantastical horrors, and a 21st century sensibility regarding feminism, anti-semitism, homosexuality, and class warfare. In fact, the treatment of people suffering from Peculiarities can be interpreted as commenting on any of the many groups of people who today feel that they are societal outcasts. The novel also mixes some historical figures (e.g. Aleister Crowley and Arthur Conan Doyle) in with the fictional ones.

It is not really a spoiler if I tell you that there is also a mathematical component. (If there wasn't, I wouldn't be writing about it here!)

We learn early on in the book that Thomas wanted to study mathematics at university, but was forbidden to do so by his family and forced into a low-level job at the family bank:

(quoted from The Peculiarities)

For want of alternatives, he turns to his work and tries to concentrate on numbers that have been stripped of all that make them interesting. Thomas has always loved numbers, loved probing their limits, manipulating them, coaxing them to revel their hidden magic. Numbers at Trinity college were athletes aand poets and warriors. At Thresher's Bank they are kitchen scullions and galley slaves. Still, he turns to them, trying to shut out the endless tick-tick-ticking of the wall clock that promises, but so rarely delivers, the movement of time.

His interest and ability in math is mentioned repeatedly throughout the first half of the book. I was therefore not surprised when the black magic that has caused the Peculiarities turns out to be the sort of magic achieved by writing equations. Thomas discovers one such formula, written with Greek and Hebrew characters, and is eventually able to use his mathematical skills (and a piece of chalk) to save the world from Walter's evil plot. Here is a taste:

(quoted from The Peculiarities)

"Those are numbers," Thomas says as the reality grasps him. From his study material he has learned that the Hebrews used letters for numbers, much as the Romans did, and he has memorized their values. But this isn't some simple tally. It is a process of some kind -- a problem being worked out, and a complicated one at that. "That's why it looks familiar. Some of these Greek and roman letters are replacements for more traditional symbols, but there can be no denying that these are formulae we are looking at."

He knows that it is so. He can begin to see it now. At he center of everything is a value, indicated by a Greek omega and a Hebrew alef, the last and first letters of their alphabets respectively. Is there meaning in that? The beginning of the end? The end of the beginning? Thomas cannot speak to such things, but what he is looking at is astonishing, complex and tantalizing. He wishes he could write it down, that he had the leisure to toy with it at length. "It is solving for omega-alef," he says. "Look, I think that section there is describing an area. And I think that could be calculating a vector quantity. It is hard to know for certain, because the symbols are unique, but the syntax makes sense. This is -- this is an algorithm."

There is much to recommend this book, mostly that it is weird and entertaining. But, as mathematical fiction it is just okay. It doesn't do anything particularly new or interesting with math -- mixing mathematical formulas and magical spells is now "old hat" -- but neither does it do anything annoying or egregious.

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(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

Works Similar to The Peculiarities
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Calculated Risks by Seanan McGuire
  2. The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson
  3. The Midnighters (Series) by Scott Westerfield
  4. Imaginary Numbers by Seanan McGuire
  5. Mandelbrot the Magnificent by Liz Ziemska
  6. When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill
  7. Ada's Room by Sharon Dodo Otoo
  8. Touch the Water, Touch the Wind by Amos Oz
  9. Arcadia by Iain Pears
  10. The Parrot's Theorem by Denis Guedj
Ratings for The Peculiarities:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
3/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
4/5 (1 votes)

GenreHistorical Fiction, Fantasy,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)