Book Review: The Rithmatist, by Brandon Sanderson

I’ve had an unclear relationship with Brandon Sanderson‘s work. I thought “Elantris” was okay. I felt his “Alcatraz” series was perfect for the audience–and that I was not in that audience. I enjoyed the first “Mistborn” book, but only a little more than I had “Elantris.” The audiobook of “Legion” was cool, appropriately amusing, thought-provoking, and a lot of fun. I’ve got “The Way of Kings” sitting in my reading queue. In short, I can’t stop reading the guy’s work, though I’m not entirely sure if I will enjoy it when I do.

I read a few sample chapters of “The Rithmatist” last year, and began looking for an excuse to get it for one of my kids so that I could read it, too. I first thought of my daughter–she’s closer to the target age group–but began to change my mind based on what she seems to be into lately. Then I got an Alcatraz book for my youngest son one day at the library when he had run out of ideas and asked for suggestions. He liked them–a lot! (Further evidence that Sanderson hit his demographic dead on, but that I’m just not that age–and perhaps never was). So I decided to take the chance that he might appreciate “The Rithmatist”, and we got it for him for Christmas.

He appears to have enjoyed it, though it may have been perhaps a little mature for him. Hard to say with him. He’s eight, but reads at a high school level. I think he’s more excited about Brandon Mull’s “Spirit Animals” at the moment, and that’s fine. But since I told him I wanted to read “The Rithmatist” too, he loaned it to me when he was done. Hoping to build some common interests with him, I moved it to the head of the list.

Sanderson knocks it out of the park with this one.

One of Sanderson’s strengths is his magic systems. Following what he calls “Sandersons’ First Law of Magic”, he tends to create magic for his books that follows clear rules. His thought is that the more clearly defined your magic, the better the audience can understand it, and the more your characters can use it to solve (or create) problems in the book. There’s a certain amount of sense to that. Heroes aren’t all that heroic if their magic-user can just wave a hand and solve all their problems without explanation or cost. Ultimately it’s just not as satisfying to the reader if magic figures too prominently in the plot while functioning as more of a deus ex machina.

By following Sanderson’s First Law, he is able to build stories around the magic; it becomes not just part of the setting, but part of the plot. Sometimes it works very well (as in Mistborn), and sometimes it can backfire a bit (I had Elantris figured out fairly early on). But on the whole, I like the theory and agree with it in general.

This approach works wonderfully well in “The Rithmatist.” The novel is quirky; it’s an alternate-history-gear-punk-mystery-fantasy. The book is set in a early-1900’s America where the continent is, instead of states, comprised of individual islands. The Asian peoples have conquered Europe, and the British monarchy fled to the Americas. In the Americas they have also discovered “chalklings,” two-dimensional creatures made up of chalk that can interact with the three-dimensional world in deadly ways. At the moment the wild chalklings are contained to the island of Nebrask by an army of Rithmatists, people with a special god-given gift for Rithmatics, the ability to endow chalk drawings with magical properties. They can draw defensive walls to keep the wild chalklings at bay, launch projectile-like lines to destroy chalklings, or create chalkings of their own to fight other chalklings or destroy chalk-line defenses.

Rithmatics itself seems to be based on geometry and mathematics. Each chapter-bump is a portion of a primer on how to use rithmatics. It’s so cleverly and thoroughly developed you can’t help but believe it. (The entire book is riddled with artwork, which only further fires the imagination.) Due to the Mistborn books, many Sanderson fans wish they were allomancers. I wish I were a Rithmatist.

So does Joel, the novel’s hero. Allowed to attend a private school where Rithmatists are trained, he is fascinated by (perhaps even obsessed with) rithmatics. His father was a chalk-maker for the school, and conducted his own research into rithmatics on the side before he was killed in an accident. Joel knows just about everything there is to know about rithmatics and the art of dueling the students practice in preparation to battle the wild chalklings out in Nebrask. He just has no magical ability of his own, though he has a gift for geometry. Though the school also trains non-rithmatistcs in more mundane fields, he only wants to study rithmatics, which is not allowed.

But suddenly student rithmatists begin disappearing. Joel, who has managed to secure a summer job as a research assistant to a rithmatics professor, finds himself drawn into the investigation and quickly finds his depth of knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject a real asset. His lack of ability, however, may get him killed.

It’s difficult to discuss the book more than this without giving away important information. Let me just say that the novel holds some seriously delicious twists. The setting is wonderful, something of a steam-punk “Dandelion Wine”. The characters are well constructed and enjoyable. The plot is well-constructed, and comes together in surprising and satisfying ways. The conclusion of the book got me emotional, not just over the plot tension, but in the unique pay-off that I should have seen coming, but didn’t. It’s hard to describe without spoilers, but the solution the characters come up with to win the day is so powerful and so right that their finding the solution is almost more important than resolving the conflict.

Sanderson also makes some excellent choices, avoiding some cheaper, less satisfying pay-offs in order to keep some of the key drivers of the story intact for further development of the series. And it will be at least a two-book series, according to the last page (or I’ll never forgive him).

The novel is aimed at the high-mid-grade/low-teen demographic, but it’s by no means just a kids book any more than Harry Potter is. I was able to appreciate it on its own merits, not merely “this is really good for a kids book.” It’s a fun story, well told. I hope it succeeds beyond Sanderson’s (or his publisher’s) dreams, because I want to play some more in that world.

As for Sanderson himself, the indications are that he’s getting better with age. His earlier stuff is okay. His more recent stuff is very good. If he continues to push himself I’m hopeful he’ll make his way up to excellent.

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