The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson
Who doesn´t know Brandon Sanderson yet? He is one of the most prominent fantasy writer of our time. Not only does he create interesting worlds, deep storylines and characters you feel for, his imagination brought forth some of the most interesting magic-systems I have ever read. In his new book, such a system stands in the center, because Joel (the protagonist) would like nothing more than to learn Rithmatics.
Joel wasn´t chosen to become a Rithmatist, thought that doesn´t discourage him to try to learn as much about it as possible, sneaking into lectures, reading everything remotely on the subject. He is more engaged and knowledgeable than most rithmatic-students. This already creates a nice setting, where the reader is as much engaged as Joel in hoping to find a way for him to become a Rithmatist.
Of course, this is not everything the story is about. Rithmatic-students are attacked and go missing and Joel is soon in the midst of the investigation, with rithmatic-professor Fitch and the rithmatic-student Melody. But there is more behind the abductions and the stakes are higher than first thought.
It is a young adult book and the story shows that. It is predictable in certain ways, but holds some interesting surprises. Still nothing that makes you lean back and say: “Wow, I didn´t expect it to turn out like this.”
I think the melee is great as an example. Early in the story, the weakness of Melody becomes clear, because she is unable to draw strong circles or ellipses. This is exactly what Joel excels at, even thought he is unable to make the lines come to life. This screams that they would complement each other really well, Joel creating the circle and Lines of Vigor, while Melody traces them (not like she learns tracing for weeks 😉 ) and adds her detailed chalklings. 200+ pages later, they do exactly that.
Another example would be Joel becoming a Rithmatist. Thought him failing the test was a bit unexpected, it is still not impossible for him to become one. It is implied that his failure is not the end for his longing and he might still have a chance to become a Rithmatist. It might have been too much to already reveal in the first book. From my perspective right now, I believe he will still be able to become a Rithmatist, maybe in the later parts of the second, or the third book.
All three main characters are done great. They have realistic personalities and develop in a good way.
Joel is easy to relate to, maybe a bit pitiable, because his dream is unattainable and his family-situation isn´t desirable. He is a genius, especially in rithmatic theory, but unable to study it. He seems a lot like Tavi from the Codex Alera Series by Jim Butcher, which is a good thing. You want him to achieve his dream, because he deserves it.
Melody is a bit of an oddball, which makes her interesting from the start. The small conflict with Joel is soon forgotten, ensuing a good friendship and possible romantic relationship. They add quite nicely too each other and it doesn´t discourage that she is described as pretty. Her name is a good pick too, because he pictures her nature well.
Professor Fitch is the cliché mentor figure. He is more of a teacher then a Rithmatist and is not nearly as secretive and aloof as other Rithmatists. He seems a bit confused some of the time, like some older professors are often depicted. Still, he does his best to help melody with her problems in rithmatics and even accepts Joel’s interest in it. He is not good with pressure, but he overcomes his weakness to save Joel and Melody.
An alternate history in a similar, but distinctively different world. North America is an archipelago, with Nebrask in it´s middle, where a war against the wild chalklings is fought. Steampunk references like clockwork engines and springworks make it different from standard fantasy with dragons and stuff. It is a well thought out world, but this book only scratches the surface, mentioning the Aztec and JoSeun Empire, but not going into depths. That is no problem for a book of 370 pages, but I am still hoping that we will get deeper into the history and world in the next books.
One thing I could never quite believe was the danger of chalklings. I mean, they are little drawings that run around on the floor, or the walls, or any surface. But even with all of Sanderson´s mentioning of them eating people alive, they still couldn´t make me fear for the safety of the characters (and not because this is YA and they are probably immortal in a way). Joel running for his life didn´t create as much tension as it could have, precisely because he was running from little scribblings.
Another problem I had with the setting was Nebrask. The wild chalklings are only on Nebrask and the war is fought there. But I do not understand why the government doesn´t just put it under quarantine. Since they are chalklings I doubt they could cross the sea between the islands. They might only be a little weak to water, but a whole sea should make it really difficult for them to cross. The Forgotten might be the case for why it is handled like this, but as of yet they had to posses humans. Maybe the next books will give some more information regarding this subject.
A big plus for the book are the illustrations. Not only are the numbers of the chapters illustrated, there are entire pages dedicated to sketches of rithmatic circles, with explanations. These do a great job at explaining the magic-system. They make it easy for the reader to visualize rithmatics. But that´s not all. On some of the pages, little chalklings are drawn. The first time I saw those I was irritated, because they looked like unfinished scribblings. Until I realized it was on purpose, because it depicted the normal way chalklings were drawn. That got me even deeper into the story.
The Rithmatist is a great read. Sanderson knows how to write an interesting and engaging book. Everyone interested in steampunk and stories about students growing up can´t go wrong with this book. It is an easy read and you can finish it in a couple of hours if you want. It is possible to read it in one sitting, because the story and characters are so well done, with a fast pacing, that you won´t get bored. It is at times too predictable, with some surprises mixed in, but it keeps you interested all the way to the end. Anybody interested should go here. You can read the first five chapters, they got me hooked.