6 April 2020

Review - Triggernometry by Stark Holborn

Cover by Philip Harris
Stark Holborn
Rattleback Books, 8 April 2008
e-book, 62pp

I'm grateful to Stark Holborn for a free advance copy of Triggernometry to consider for review.

I knew Holborn as the author of Nunslinger, an excellent alt-Western which I reviewed here.

Now Holborn is back with a novel that packs the punch of an even alt-ier story. Again all the Western touchstones are there - the wilderness, the railroads as lifelines, Frontier (lack of) justice, the protagonist who wants to put the past behind - and the past that won't be so put.

But here there is an exotic spin to the whole thing. This is a world, or at least an America, where mathematics and mathematicians are reviled, feared. They are the despised "maths" with prices on their heads, sometimes tolerated - just - for useful skills but only if those skills can be cloaked in some polite fiction, or hawked at dead of night, which is where we meet "Mad” Malago Browne and her sidekick, Pierre Fermat. Holborn has fun throughout introducing figures from the history of maths and, in Emmy Noether, physics. She generally paints them as a crew of hard-drinking, ruthless desperadoes, albeit fallen due to persecution rather than intent.

Of course there's a shootout.

Of course there are desperate nighttime rides.

Of course there's a loyal hound called, simply, Dog.

The central conceit is maintained very well: just why might maths be seen as dangerous? Holborn makes you believe that those instrument sets, those methods and solutions, may, indeed, in the wrong hands, constitute threats. Browne is deadly when she can find an angle, and she and Fermat are a formidable team. All the more pity, then, they had a falling out all those years back...

In a world of rough mining camps, ranches, anarchists, bank raids and posses, it all seems to make a lot of sense. The drive of the narrative, combined with Browne's bitterness through most of the book and her bickering with "Ferm", carries the reader along magnificently. In a relatively short book that relationship is central and Holborn conveys it very well - yes that love-hate thing between a pair of outlaws is another classic Western trope yet Holborn makes it into something slightly different, adding a wistfulness at the mathematical life that has been lost: at one stage Ferm whoops in delight when employing a particular clever technique to solve a problem and the book has that sense of infectious fun throughout.

A great read, whether you speak maths or not - if you do you'll spot some in-jokes and references as well as understanding the chapter heading equations, if you don't you'll still enjoy this fun and gripping story.

For more information about the book and to buy it, see the author's website here.

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