Thursday, May 30, 2013

Book Review: The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson

The Rithmatist is a young adult novel written by Brandon Sanderson. I feel it hasn't been advertised as much as some of his other books and novellas. Even now you hear more about Steelheart, his next novel, than about The Rithmatist. And that's a shame, given how fun The Rithmatist is.

This is a story set in an alternate Earth where certain people, Rithmatists, can use geometry-based magic. By drawing lines of chalk, they are able to produce physical effects that help them in the never-ending battle against wild chalklings. These wild chalklings are controlled by no man, yet flow forth from a mysterious tower. In the midst of all this, students at a prodigious school start disappearing, seemingly kidnapped by a rouge Rithmatist. Joel, a young boy without Rithmatic abilities, but all the desire in the world to be one, quickly gets involved in the investigative work to figure out who is behind these kidnappings.

Read on for my full review.

Overall Impression
Sanderson strikes again! The man just keeps on writing good books and manages a very fast turn out.  That is not to say that this is my favorite book, but it was good. This one is a young adult book, which means the main characters are younger (teenagers) and it's aimed for that audience so it's not as grand or complicated as other novels.The characters felt a bit recycled in that several seem like figures from other books. I kept thinking of Harry Potter (minus magic) and Professor Snape when reading about two in particular. The plot is intriguing however and leaves you wanting more. Half the fun is figuring out how the magic and the world works, which is Sanderson's specialty. This one is a young adult book, which means the main characters are younger (teenagers) and it's aimed for that audience so it's not as grand or complicated as other novels.

The story is fairly straightforward, as expected for a short young adult novel. Students have begun disappearing and it appears that a Rithmatist is behind them. Tensions mount in the school as the events escalate. Parallel to this major plot line, is one focusing on the main character's development. It's almost like a coming-of-age story, yet it's not really that. Joel is no Rithmatist, but he's always wanted to learn about it and the mysteries of this magic will be key in solving the puzzle of the disappearing students. This is a stand-alone novel, but the ending leaves things opens for sequels and I'm quite certain that Sanderson will take advantage of that.

The story focuses on a small set of characters; chief among them is Joel. This is a young 16 year-old boy who is fascinated by Rithmatics and really wants to learn all he can about them. Unfortunately, Rithmatists are chosen when they are 8 years old and he did not end up becoming one. Despite this, he is very skilled at geometry and the theory behind Rithmatics (what little he can learn).

A few of the characters seem a bit stereotypical, including Joel. We have the good, but clumsy scholarly professor and the aggressive upstart who seems evil. However, Melody, the feisty and overdramatic student, is a well-made character. She comes off as a bit of a jerk at first, but we learn a lot about her and by the end we feel she really has made a friend in Joel. She is hilarious in her comments and interactions:
“What! That’s a tragedy.” 
“Melody, everything is a tragedy to you.” 
“Not having ice cream,” she proclaimed, “is the culmination of all disasters!

Setting / World Building
At first glance, the book appears to be set in the real world, perhaps with some minor modifications (like the magic system). However, once you get into it you realize that it is very very different. Some of the differences are minor, like the use of chopsticks for Italian cuisine. Others are more major- there is no United States, instead there is the United Isles since America is made to be a sprawling archipelago. My knowledge of geology makes me wonder how you can have so many large islands close together and not be a full landmass. It just seems like there is too much land and not enough space between the islands to be believable. However, the geography of the world is not the important thing in the story. That would be Rithmatics.

Rithmatics is a magic system heavily based on geometry. When a Rithmatist draws lines with chalk, he or she imbues them with power. What exactly it does depend on the line drawn and how accurate it is. The book is heavily illustrated and annotated with these lines, at left I provide the basic info on the 4 lines. One of the lines includes chalklings, which are effectively two-dimensional creatures made from chalk. They can be given commands to move, attack, defend, etc, but there also exist wild chalklings. These emerge from a mysterious tower in the island of Nebrask and Rithmatists must go there and fight them.

I will admit that I was hesitant at first about this magic system. It seemed a little bit silly and with little practical application. The fact that the main character is not a Rithmatist helped, as this way we are learning about how it works alongside the character. Once we realize that chalklings can interact with the three-dimensional world we start to see more uses for them. A lot of the technology in this world is based on gears and springs, which have to be wound up. Sometimes this can be difficult or time-consuming, so what better way to do this than by drawing yourself a helpful chalkling? Of course, Rithmatics can also be used for evil and chalklings can tear someone apart. All the more reason to train Rithmatists to prevent the wild chalklings from overrunning the world (How exactly the chalklings would cross the water is never made clear, though perhaps they can only do so with the Forgotten).

Final Thoughts
This was quite a fun book. It felt a bit short, though, probably because of the target audience and the straightforward plot. I would have liked to learn more about the world and the technology, as well as the history of Rithmatics, how exactly it works, and what's up with the tower in Nebrask. The characters, though they felt simpler than other of Sanderson's work, were still very fun, especially Melody. I look forward to hearing if Sanderson writes any more novels set in this universe.

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