I’m beginning to wonder if Brandon Sanderson is cloning himself. Really, it’s just making the rest of us look bad, all the work he’s managing to put out there. I find myself hoping he’s a really bad father or something, until I realize that’s sort of taking it out on his children. So maybe I’ll go with his lawn is a scraggly weed-filled mess and he dresses poorly. Anyway, another month, another Sanderson book . . .
If one did a mash up of Harold and the Purple Crayon, A Wizard of Earthsea, and HARRY POTTER, and set it in an alternate semi-steampunk world where the Americas are a giant archipelago called the United Isles (a few of the islands: New Britannia, Pitt, Texas, Santa Fe, Crockett), you’d approximate the storyline of The Rithmatist.
In this world, the center island, Nebrask, is home to Wild Chalklings, deadly two-dimensional creatures that are barely being contained to Nebrask by a large, constant force of Rithmatists. Using chalk, Rithmatists can create lines of force (known as lines of vigor), lines of shielding (known as lines of forbidding), and circles of protection, and can fight off/kill wild chalkings. They can also create minor Chalklings themselves and give them a semblance of life and some basic commands (they remain two-dimensional, however). They learn this skill at eight Rithmatist academies and then spend 10 years on the front in Nebrask, learning how to create more powerful and deadly Chalklings that first year.
Joel is the son of a cleaning lady at Armedius Academy, where his father worked as a chalkmaker until his death eight years ago in an accident. He missed his chance at being a Rithmatist, which is what he has always wanted, and now he’s set himself on becoming a scholar of the art. But when Rithmatist students at the academy begin disappearing, seemingly carried off by Chalklings, Joel gets caught up in the search for the killer, working with a Rithmatist student named Melody assigned to remedial instruction and a Rithmatist professor named Professor Fitch. Might his father’s lifelong obsession, only now coming to light, have something to do with the disappearances? Is this a new front in the war against the Wild Chalklings? Or something new?
In typical Sanderson fashion, The Rithmatist is a fast-moving, lively and mostly compelling story with interesting, likable characters, entertaining dialogue, and an intriguing new magic system. There are a few areas that could have been stronger, but though they detracted a bit from the experience, I found myself whipping through this nearly-400 page novel in a single sitting, happy at the end that my wife volunteered to go pick up our son so I wouldn’t have to put it down at a climactic point.
As mentioned, the main characters are likable and engaging, if a bit familiar. Professor Fitch is a pretty typical absent-minded, good-hearted teacher/mentor, and Melody a typical pretty-in-a-not-usual way feisty girl. I’d argue she is given too little to do and comes across strangely weak at times despite her spunky personality. The side characters, such as Joel’s mother, the academy principal, some office workers, and others are handled well, given a sense of individuality despite not being given a lot of page time. And a police inspector who comes in partway is another strong character.
The magic system is intriguing and I like that it is relatively limited. The book’s chapters each open with a simple drawing which does a nice job of explaining the system further. There is also a lot of mystery to it, which makes it all the more intriguing. On the other hand, some of the secrecy seemed a bit contrived and Joel’s lack of knowledge concerning his father’s work didn’t make much sense to me at all.
The worldbuilding doesn’t dominate the book, but it is a subtle part of the background throughout, seen in transportation, types of food, references to politics and the like. As with the magic system, there was enough to let you get a sense of it but it also left you wanting more.
I’m a fan of Sanderson, but I’ve never found his prose particularly memorable and that holds true for The Rithmatist as well. But while it never garners a lot of style points, it does move along quickly and snappily and that’s as equally true here.
The Rithmatist is a captivating, winning story with likable characters, an interesting and original magic system, and an ending that opens up rather than closes down. It’s definitely a YA novel, but it was enjoyable for this adult, and I’m sure young readers will find it even more so.
[Update] Turns out at least one young reader found it enjoyable. My eleven-year-old son winged through it in two days (enjoying it for many of the same reasons I listed above) and then put me on the spot by asking lots of questions to which I could only answer “I don’t know,” “we’ll find out in the sequel I assume,” “he left that a mystery,” “I don’t know,” “I don’t know,” “I don’t know.”
Thanks, Sanderson. Now put that lawnmower away and get me the sequel so I can give my kid some answers . . .