“The Rithmatist” by Brandon Sanderson

The RithmatistThe Rithmatist
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Read Date: 10 June 2013
Goodreads Reading Status Updates: None. I was too busy reading and bookmarking on Kindle for PC!
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Review Preview: Adults will appreciate the layers and complexities in the world and in the plot that Sanderson so carefully constructed, while younger readers will definitely enjoy the brisk plot and the familiar YA and fantasy elements, as well as Sanderson’s trademark humor. And everyone will be creeped out by the twists and turns and the story’s villain.

✎ ✎ ✎ ✎ ✎ ✎ ✎

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.


 
To be honest, this must be Sanderson’s most WTF-inducing magic system yet. I mean, hello, moving chalk figures?! The thing is, it’s also one of his most inventive and exciting creations so far.

WARNING: Here There Be (mild) Spoilers. I won’t spoil major plot points, but I will discuss the magic system, and I have to mention a few significant events.

Identity Crisis

One of the more appealing aspects of this book for me is how it walks the line between a YA-hero’s journey-school-based-fantasy like “Harry Potter” or “The Name of the Wind”, and “gearpunk” reminiscent of Scott Westerfeld’s steampunk “Leviathan” trilogy. It also has epic fantasy elements, and everything is set in an alternate Earth with very familiar places and cultures, which lends a fascinating verisimilitude to the story.

If that sounded a bit like this book has a bad case of identity crisis, well, perhaps. But it all comes together with Sanderson’s skill.

The Nature of Magic

The major manifestation of magic in the world of “The Rithmatist” is in someone’s ability to practice Rithmatics, a chalk and geometry-based magic system whose primary purpose is to defend humans from the so-called Wild Chalklings.

In theory, Chalklings—chalk drawings of creatures that have come alive because of magic—can only attack other Chalklings and can do no harm to humans or other living creatures. However, the Wild Chalkings are different, and they like to leave their victims’ bodies mangled. And so Rithmatists are basically chalk-wielding soldiers who serve in the frontlines of the War Against…well, Terrifying Drawings.

The epic fantasy element that I mentioned earlier deals with how a Rithmatist acquires power. Most epic fantasies depict magic as a power controlled by the gods and bestowed to special, chosen people. It is the same here. All 8-year-olds undergo “Inception”—kind of a baptism wherein you either emerge from the ceremony with Rithmatic abilities or you don’t. The noteworthy part here is the religion described is very similar to Christianity and its practices, which, again, makes for great verisimilitude.

Magic as an Open Secret

One other thing that I really liked about this story is how the existence of Rithmatics is such an open secret. Everybody knows it exists, everybody knows the basic mechanics of the magic system, everybody knows where the power comes from, and everybody knows who’s a Rithmatist and who isn’t (they wear uniforms). It’s interesting because magic is so often depicted as a big secret that the Muggles can never know.

In this book, Rithmatics students even share schools with regular students, and it’s possible for anyone—especially if you’re as persistent as Joel—to learn the science and the discipline of Rithmatics without ever being able to practice it. You may be able to do the Math, you may be able to draw the most awesome chalk creatures, you may know every single defensive and offensive tactic, but it’s all useless if you weren’t Incepted with the magic in the first place. This opened up a lot of possibilities for Sanderson to explore in terms of the interactions between his characters and how his world works.

The Setting

In the world of “The Rithmatist”, people still write with quills and work in the light of “springwork” lanterns (powered by gears and kinetic energy), America is an archipelago, people ride springwork horses, dollars are coins that have moving gears inside, and the world superpower is the JoSeun Empire. It feels modern and yet medieval at the same time—more identity crisis, and yet again, everything works.

As an aside, because I’ve been immersed in Korean entertainment and imperial history recently, Sanderson’s nods to Korean culture (the JoSeun Empire, kimchi and ham sandwiches, historical novels about the Koryeo Dynasty, etc.) was something I had a lot of fun with. As he revealed in “The Emperor’s Soul“, he once served as a missionary in South Korea, and he obviously picked up a lot of interesting cultural elements there that he is now using in his stories.

The Characters

I’m glad that even though this is a YA book, we didn’t get the usual troika of young characters. There’s only Joel and Melody, and their friendship isn’t your usual YA one either. Theirs is something like a symbiotic relationship, and whether or not they eventually become a romantic item, surprisingly, is not something that bothered me. I admit to being particularly invested in romantic story lines in YA, but I appreciated the lack of one (or perhaps the subtlety, depending on your reading) here because their unlikely friendship and their interactions as an accomplished “theoretical Rithmatist” / incompetent actual Rithmatist were very engaging.

I also appreciated that Sanderson did not turn Joel into a real Rithmatist even if he did present a way for it to happen. I like the idea of a hero who has to save the world without magical ability.

Random Comments

Like most of Sanderson’s novels, he took up a lot of space to describe and explain and illustrate things in this book. He toned it down to a level that is more tolerable for the target audience, though, so there is substantial background information, but not as much as what we got in, say, “The Way of Kings“.

Rithmatics doesn’t feel that epic or spectacular. But Sanderson wrote the story in a way that allowed him to reveal different aspects of the magic, to gradually escalate its effects and manifestations, and to introduce exceptions (the Wild Chalklings). So even though, in my head, the action scenes involving Rithmatics were a bit slow—mainly because I can’t imagine people speed-chalk-drawing on the floor—Sanderson managed to make it all feel very exciting and fast-paced.

Adults will appreciate the layers and complexities in the world and in the plot that Sanderson so carefully constructed, while younger readers will definitely enjoy the brisk plot and the familiar YA and fantasy elements, as well as Sanderson’s trademark humor. And everyone will be creeped out by the twists and turns and the story’s villain. I like that Sanderson still managed to use the techniques that worked for his epic fantasies here while still ensuring that he is writing within the YA framework.

Read this book:

  • If you like YA and you like fantasy! 😉
  • If you want to be introduced to the works of Brandon Sanderson. This is a good starting point before trying to explore his epic fantasies.
  • If you like chess. Seriously! You will appreciate Rithmatics.
  • If you like Math. Seriously! You will appreciate Rithmatics.
  • If you like unicorns. 😉
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