Book: “The Rithmatist” by Brandon Sanderson
Publishing Info: Tor Teen, May 2014
Where Did I Get this Book: Audiobook from the library!
Book Description from Goodreads: More than anything, Joel wants to be a Rithmatist. Rithmatists have the power to infuse life into two-dimensional figures known as Chalklings. Rithmatists are humanity’s only defense against the Wild Chalklings. 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 learn 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.
A “New York Times” Book Review Notable Children’s Book of 2013.
Review: Full disclosure: Brandon Sanderson is one of my all-time favorite authors. I think I’ve read almost everything he’s ever written, which is actually saying a lot as the man is known as a speedwriter. He published 2 novels just this year! And is writing another series that is made up of 900+ page books at the same time! I think he may have no life? Another fun fact, I got to meet him last year at a book signing here in Minneapolis!
First and foremost, Sanderson is known for creating elaborate, unique magic systems. No lazy wand waving here! Rithmatics is comprised of a complicated system of chalk diagrams, essentially. As I was listening to the audiobook, each chapter would start with the narrator describing one diagram or another, all based around a system of circles. It was a bit challenging to picture it all: 9-point circles based on inscribed triangles, 2 point ellipses, jagged lines used for attacks, etc. But then, when clicking to hear the next chapter one time, I noticed that on the cover image it included illustrator information. *sigh* So, this was probably not the best book to be listening to as an audiobook. Live and learn! Considering that, I’m even more impressed by the fact that the narrator was mostly successful with these descriptions and that by the end of the book I had a fairly good understanding of the whole thing.
Essentially, Rithmatists are able to “activate” chalk drawings to accomplish different tasks. A circle is for protection, certain jagged lines can be used to break through circles, and you can draw “Chalklings,” little creatures who can be instructed to perform certain tasks, such as protecting a circle or attacking a circle. In school, Rithmatists will hold duels to practice these skills with the end goal of being prepared to guard the United Isles (in this world the United States is made up a series of islands based on state names essentially, like “New Britannia” and the “Floridian Isles”) from Wild Chalklings, vicious creatures that will attack and eat people if not warded off.
The whole concept was a very fun idea. It was even more fun to have our main protagonist, Joel, NOT be a Rithmatist, but instead a regular student who just happened to be obsessed with the whole idea and befriends a Rithmatics professor, Professors Finch, and student, Melody. This was a clever way of introducing the audience to the world, through a narrator who, while knowledgeable, is still an outsider like we are in many ways. Joel was a good protagonist, but a little flat, I felt. He seened a bit like a paper cutout version of a YA hero. Good enough, but his personality didn’t stand out to me in any really interesting ways.
However, Professor Finch and Melody were amazing! Professor Finch is the typical bumbling, wise mentor. Combine Dumbledore with Dobby and you get Finch. Wise, kindly, but not self-confident. And Melody had all of the personality that Joel lacked. An unskilled Rithatmatics student herself, Melody is also an outsider who is taken in by Professor Finch. She’s dramatic, witty, and just the right foil for straight-laced Joel. She also loves to draw unicorn Chalklings, much to Joel’s continuous dismay.
The mystery itself was good. There were a few moments towards the end where I began to think Sanderson was going to take the easy way out, and I’m glad to say he didn’t. For the most part, the revelations were a surprise.
One criticism I have, however, is that after reading this and the first book in Sanderson’s other YA series, “Steelheart” I’m beginning to think he struggles just slightly with adjusting his tone for YA. While overall I liked this book, Joel is not fully fleshed out, and in some ways this feels like a result of the author’s discomfort with writing teenage characters. The story itself suffers from a similar feeling of slight “offness.” Again, maybe a discomfort with not knowing how to tone down a story for young adult audiences? It’s very hard to put my finger on exactly what it was. But having read his other works, this just felt like slightly…less.
Overall, however, I still enjoyed this book and think it would be a great recommendation for fans of YA fantasy/sci fi.
Rating 6: Strong concept and fun story, but had a few weaknesses
“The Rithmatist” is included in these Goodreads lists: “Most Unique, Original, and Interesting Magic Systems” and “The League of Extraordinary Kids.”
Find “The Rithmatist” at your library using WorldCat!