Thursday, August 1, 2013

Review: The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson

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 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. 

After Elantris, I was ready to read Brandon Sanderson’s entire bibliography.  Happily, this resolution coincided with the release of The Rithmatist, Sanderson’s first YA novel, so I needn’t look far for my next read.  And what a read it was.  The Rithmatist is one of those books that gets you in trouble with the people around you because you’re so absorbed in the story you not only forget about everything else you were supposed to do that day, but also become deaf to your surroundings, thereby leading your parents to become frustrated when you’re too much in another world to hear them telling you to say, eat dinner, for example.

Unlike his earlier novels, which are all set in imaginary worlds, Sanderson’s latest takes place in an alternate version of our own world, where both continents and history evolved differently.  The America in which Joel and Melody live is an archipelago and seems to still be part of the British empire (this is never fully explained but involves Knight Senators).  The true imperialist power in their world is the Joseun Empire—Sanderson’s analogue for Korea (named after a period of Korean history). As yet, we don’t know nearly as much about the shape of Joel’s world as we do about its scholastic system, but The Rithmatist is only the first of a series and in terms of plot it was more important that readers be informed about Rithmatics and Armedius Academy than the outside world.  Thus while I still have many questions regarding worldbuilding, I’ll forgive them for now in the hopes that they’ll be answered in future novels.  Besides, the idea of Nebraska as an island overrun with wild demonic two-dimensional chalk drawings kind of amuses me.  A lot.*

Sanderson’s worldbuilding takes a backseat to the complex magical system he’s created for this novel, one that is unquestionably original and more than a little fascinating.  Since Rithmatics rely entirely on the Rithmatist’s ability to draw complex geometric patterns, the book is replete with illustrations of the various Rithmatic lines, defenses and chalklings.  To explain the system fully would take the better part of a book—and it does—so I’ll leave the explanations to Sanderson and his characters.  Suffice it to say that the intricacies of Rithmatics more than makes up for any informational gaps in worldbuilding or previously seen plot devices.  The magic system alone is reason enough to read the novel, but it is not the novel’s sole virtue.  Far from it, in fact.  Sanderson’s brilliantly imaginative magic would not have made The Rithmatist half so absorbing were it not for Sanderson’s ever-solid prose, intricate plotting, and most of all, his wonderfully vulnerable protagonists.

Our heroes, Joel and Melody, are an interesting pair.  Taken separately, they could not be more opposite.  Joel is the impoverished son of Armedius Academy’s custodian and deceased chalkmaker, only able to attend the school by the grace of its headmaster, a friend of his parents who waives Joel’s tuition.  Melody is the wealthy daughter of a pair of successful Rithmatists and younger sibling to three more.  Joel is brilliant at Rithmatics—a proper genius—but is not a Rithmatist and cannot make the drawings come alive (he’s also terrible at drawing chalklings).  Melody is a true artist.  Her chalklings are a work of art, but she cannot draw a Rithmatic line to save her life. Literally.  Joel is desperate to be a Rithmatist to the point that he ignores his studies in order to sneak into Rithmatic seminars and nearly loses his place at the Academy.  Melody hates being a Rithmatist and sees her selection as one of life’s great injustices (the second is that Joel cannot become a Rithmatist).  They are so much each other’s opposite that they complete each other: Together they are an unstoppable team.

The novel’s plot is fun—mystery, dark doings, multiple twists involving the identities of the antagonists—and absorbing.  I did mention the book was impossible to put down.  At times it reminded me of China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun (high praise, I love that book), particularly with regard to the antagonist (can’t say more, would spoil the reveal) and Joel’s determination despite being “unchosen” and un-endowed with any powers.  But The Rithmatist’s true strength lies in the relationship between Joel and Melody, and between them and their mentor, the unfairly demoted Professor Fitch.  Joel and Melody are not what you would call “instant friends”.  They’ve both been isolated by their peers; Joel because he’s poor and doesn’t share the other students' social standing, and Melody because she’s odd and terrible at Rithmatic lines.  Thus their social skills when it comes to interacting with people their own age are somewhat lacking.  At one point Joel lashes out and belittles Melody because he has power for the first time in his life, and Melody irrationally accuses Joel of stalking her.  Neither appreciates the pressures or hardships of the other’s socioeconomic standing.  Fitch is as much their guide in learning to treat each other as human beings with feelings that deserve equal respect as he is their guide in Rithmatics.  Gradually they learn what it is to be and have a friend, and in the process begin to instill in their beloved mentor the sense of confidence that was ripped from him.  

There’s so much going on in this novel.  So many fascinating characters and relationships.  So many mysteries raised and solved only to raise more mysteries.  So many glimpses of Joel and Melody’s world that intrigue but do not reveal the bigger picture.  I do not mean to imply that it is not a satisfying read.  In fact, if you’re not cheering for Joel, Melody and Fitch at the novel’s close, we may not have read the same book.  And there’s no cliffhanger that makes you want to throw the book across the room, storm over to the publisher and demand the next volume before you lose your mind.  But it does leave you wanting more.  Starting a new series the moment the first book is released is always a risk.  You commit yourself to waiting at least a year between books, and potentially half a decade or more to find out once and for all how the story ends.  If this is the kind of thing that causes you to go on a bibliophilic rampage across the internet or to terrorize your friends and family, you may want to hold off till the rest of the series comes out before you read this one.  As for me, resigned to my fate of always, always getting myself into a series while it’s still in its infancy, waiting a year for the next installment is going to be painful.  

Type: YA Fantasy, alternate history, arguably steam-punk depending who you’re arguing with, first in a series 
Acquisition: Personal purchase from Barnes & Noble
Discovery: Picked up Elantris, promptly found The Rithmatist on the “New YA Sci/Fi Fantasy Adventure” shelf and bought it
Current Rank: Book I really enjoyed—we’ll see how the rest of the series turns out.
Number of Reads: 1 (With more to come.)

Second Opinion
(The Rithmatist has garnered fairly mixed reviews, so I’ve added a couple more second opinions than usual.)

*I’m from Iowa, Nebraska is our neighbor.

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