the rithmatist

Monday, January 13, 2014 |
I had never read Brandon Sanderson before I picked up The Rithmatist for CYBILS award consideration.  I had heard of him as the author appointed to complete Robert Jordan’s epic Wheel of Time saga (by the by, i got to the sixth book in that series in college, looked up, and realized two weeks had flown by/my grades had slipped. put it down and never picked it up again…), and as such an almost constant presence on (go there if you haven’t yet!).  I do love a beautifully crafted magical system and superior world-building, so it makes all sorts of sense that I’d fall in love with The Rithmatist and its Chalklings.  Which I did.  Smart, unique fantasies don’t grow on trees!

the rithmatist by brandon sanderson book cover
More than anything, Joel wants to be a Rithmatist. Chosen by the Master in a mysterious inception ceremony, Rithmatists have the power to infuse life into two-dimensional figures known as Chalklings. Rithmatists are humanity’s only defense against the Wild Chalklings — merciless creatures that leave mangled corpses in their wake. Having nearly overrun the territory of Nebrask, the Wild Chalklings now threaten all of the American Isles.

As the son of a lowly chalkmaker at Armedius Academy, Joel can only watch as Rithmatist students study the magical art that he would do anything to practice. Then students start disappearing — kidnapped from their rooms at night, leaving trails of blood. Assigned to help the professor who is investigating the crimes, Joel and his friend Melody find themselves on the trail of an unexpected discovery — one that will change Rithmatics — and their world — forever.

Bestselling author Brandon Sanderson brings his unique brand of epic storytelling to the teen audience with an engrossing tale of danger and suspense—the first of a series. With his trademark skills in world-building, Sanderson has created a magic system that is so inventive and detailed that that readers who appreciate games of strategy and tactics just may want to bring Rithmatics to life in our world.

The world of The Rithmatist is one where flat, 2-dimensional chalk drawings come to life and act on people and things.  Only a specific set of people have the power to draw these magical chalk lines, though – Rithmatists.  Joel is the son of a chalkmaker, and he always wanted to be a Rithmatist.  He even has the mind and skills for it.  But he wasn’t chosen.  He lives at Armedius, the best school in the American Isles, but he’s so obsessed with Rithmatics that he’s failing classes and headed nowhere fast.  Then Rithmatics students start disappearing, with suspected Wild Chalkling involvement.  Joel will have to use every ounce of his cleverness and ingenuity to help solve the mystery (and save the day, of course).

As mentioned above, the strongest part of this book, by far, is the Rithmatic magic/science system.  It’s a combination of geometry, chalk art, and religious experience, and no one is sure exactly how or why it works – or if they do, they’re not telling.  Joel is thirsty for knowledge, and it is through his inquisitiveness and academic bent (and location at a school for Rithmatists) that the reader learns about the world.  Lest you think that it’s all dry theory, there are exciting duels.  Duels with serious consequences for the combatants, as is only fitting for Rithmatists, who each have to complete a 10-year tour of duty in Nebrask (where Wild Chalklings threaten all of North American civilization).  It’s part logic, part keeping-cool-in-combat, part talent, and all of it is exhilarating reading.

Sanderson’s world-building is also fascinating.  He’s constructed an alternate world where the Americas are a collection of islands, only recently populated, and before that mysteriously (sinisterly?) empty.  The culture seems to be a mash-up of Asian, European and Egyptian influences, though the characters themselves aren’t particularly diverse. 

Aside from Rithmatics-mad Joel, the main characters are Melody, a very mediocre student Rithmatist, and the professors and president of Armedius.  Sanderson’s writing is strong on world-building, plot and magic, but the characters get shorter shrift.  It’s a murder mystery at a boarding school, with magic.  For most of the book, that was enough.  There were expected twists, and a few unexpected ones, and Joel learned a lesson or two.  However, the majority of characters remained static, and their dialogue felt stilted at times.  Not weak, but not emotion-packed (which the target audience may have come to expect? or not), either.  It was not something that made a difference in MY reading experience, but I noticed it, and other readers (less impressed by the shiny new magic!) may as well.

In all, The Rithmatist introduced an exceptional magical system, a smart hero, a nation rife with political tension, and a long-running war.  I can’t wait to see what happens next!

Recommended for: fans of school-set fantasies and marvelous world-building, those who enjoy(ed) geometry, and anyone interested in a great story with unique dangers and clever, courageous protagonists.

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