Limited Wish by Mark Lawrence (Book Review)
Limited Wish picks up the story of Impossible Times six months after we left the teenage Nick Hayes in One Word Kill. Bewildered, traumatised and suffering from self-imposed partial amnesia, Nick still has the drive to do great things in the world of mathematics. That imperative takes him to the home of mathematics, Cambridge University, alma mater of Sir Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking. More specifically, he homes in on Trinity College and Queens’ College.
In One Word Kill, the action spanned a few weeks at the start of January 1986. In Limited Wish, the bulk of the action is set in summer of that same year. There is a fair bit of 80s nostalgia to be enjoyed, particularly so for your reviewer, who even attended the very event which Lawrence selects as the setting for the book’s denouement (Trinity College May ball in June 1986 – and I have the photos to prove it).
The plot of all three books still hangs on a single central spine, which obliges reviewers to tread extra carefully for fear of spoilers. Within that constraint I will try to give at least a flavour of this second instalment in Lawrence’s excursion into a new genre.
Nick, teenage prodigy, but still under the shadow of a vicious form of leukaemia, knows that time is not on his side. He has few short cuts to take if he is to fulfil his scientific destiny. Lawrence’s writing conveys that frenetic urgency, yet interweaves peril with the absurd and the awkward. Nick threads his way through encounters with a more worldly older teenager, a menagerie of hooray Henries, rugger buggers and to put it simply – punts. Which is not to say that Cambridge is or was wholly peopled by such people, merely that theirs was often the most colourful plumage and the loudest calls.
We meet new villains and allies, some with a more than passing familial resemblance to others we have known. Lawrence continues to mine the science of Schrodinger and multiple universes, exploiting veins of high yield plot material, but still bringing his incisive prose to bear.
“…we humans care about what is, what’s in front of us. … If a man is starving to death on our street we empty the larder to feed him. Move him to a country a thousand miles away and our compassion shrinks a hundredfold. Move a child to another universe and we cease to care.”
Still being under the care of the London doctors, Nick the underage undergraduate flits between London and Cambridge. At home, old friends and old habits persist in some escapist Dungeons & Dragons role playing. The budding relationship between Nick and the group’s solitary female player – Mia – has hit something of a rocky patch. At least one can assume so, since she has a new boyfriend who, to Nick’s barely concealed irritation, joins their role-playing circle.
As with One Word Kill, there are parallels to be played out between the dilemmas in the game and the threats in real life. Solving one is a key to solving the other, and both puzzles hinge on some interpretation of the spell in the book’s title: “Limited Wish.” The limited wish concept reminds me of Edward Eager’s story Half-Magic, where a coin granting only half-wishes carries a group of children not to the wished for desert island, but simply to a desert. The partial nature of Nick’s limited wish may not be quite so brutally simple, but it is clear that our hero won’t get all that he wishes for.
Nick’s preternaturally early enrolment at Cambridge depends on his first worming his way under the wing of Professor Halligan. This fictional mathematical genius is given scale for the reader when Hayes compares him to Stephen Hawking. However, back in the 80s Hawking’s fame was embryonic, his distinctive figure directing his own wheelchair up the cobbles of Trinity Street still an intellectual eminence recognised by relatively few. So, there is a realism when Helen, the older teenager, bluntly asks, “Who’s Hawking?” Anonymity beyond their own somewhat esoteric circles was ever a characteristic of even the most elevated of academic high fliers.
Multi-dimensional mathematics is inherently somewhat inaccessible. At college, a mathematics undergraduate tried to explain to me how, once one got to the seventh or eighth dimension in which to imagine things, this particular function really did resemble a dovetail. I simply took his word for it, as baffled as a dove with an eight-dimensional tail would be. Lawrence, however, conveys the beauty of this kind of mental gymnastics without burdening the reader with the mechanics.
“… there are fabulous beasts that swim in the seas of mathematics. Multidimensional behemoths of incredible beauty that even the best of minds struggle to glimpse. The equations we battle with … are the shadows cast by those we hunt. And on Halligan’s boards were a dozen or more fragmented shadows, each struggling to assert itself, each a hint at the magnificent tiger he had by the tail.”
A friend kindly retrieved this cartoon rendition of this concept of intra-dimensional mathematics:
As well as the beauty of mathematics, Lawrence captures the tight-lipped culture of academia.
“It’s not a very elegant solution,” I said. Telling someone their solution is inelegant is the mathematical equivalent of insulting someone’s mother.
Time, however, is in short supply for Nick. Aggressive idiots, malevolent assassins, and his own weak body are all conspiring against him.
Lawrence, no stranger to hospitals himself, conveys the inherent antiseptic despair of the places.
The thing about hospitals is that they eat conversation. There’s something about being there under the bright lights with beds crowding to either side that makes every attempt to spark a new line of discussion peter out in awkward silence.
As the story hurries to its conclusion, the plethora of dangers converge on the aforementioned Trinity Ball where Nick faces dilemmas on multiple levels – romantic, physical, and more universal. One thing is certain: it will all end in fireworks, and Lawrence makes the ending far more spectacular than I remember the original ball – but then, I must have experienced it in a different universe!