Sunday, November 16, 2014

Book Review: The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson


Joel can afford to attend Armedius Academy only because he’s been granted full tuition by the principal. His mother cleans the campus, and his father used to make chalk for rithmatists, before he died. Joel, sadly, is not a member of the small secondary school within Armedius. He’s not a Rithmatist, despite always wanting to be one. The fact that he’s obsessed with rithmatics and has a natural mind for the geometry that forms the core of rithmatics doesn’t matter. Joel isn’t one of them.

But this summer, Professor Fitch lost a duel that forced him to tutor students, and Joel manages to get himself assigned as Fitch’s research assistant. Now, Joel has a real chance to learn some rithmatics. He just has to get past the other student Fitch is tutoring, a struggling, highly annoying rithmatist named Melody. Add in the new, arrogant professor Nalazar, who won that duel against Fitch, and the fact that rithmatist students have suddenly begun disappearing from campus, and suddenly, Joel has his hands full with more than just trying to find a way to become a rithmatist.

That's my summary. Here's the one I pulled from

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 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.

Bestselling author Brandon Sanderson brings his unique brand of epic storytelling to the teen audience with an engrossing tale of danger and suspense—the first of a series. With his trademark skills in worldbuilding, Sanderson has created a magic system that is so inventive and detailed that readers who appreciate games of strategy and tactics just may want to bring Rithmatics to life in our world.


It’s difficult to lock down a real time period in The Rithmatist, but I’d put my guess sometime in the late 60s or maybe in the 70s. Don’t quote me on that, though. It could well be set in the last few years. Thanks to the novel being set in an alternate America featuring a form of geometric chalk magic a few centuries old, it’s impossible to say if social norms would have progressed the same way and times they did in our reality. But considering Joel ends up at an ice cream shop where a scoop is expensive at nine cents, and where there’s a little hubbub about one of the clerks at Armedius being a woman, well… it’s easy to surmise if impossible to confirm.

The alternate America Sanderson built is highly intriguing, and I wish I knew more about it. We don’t have 50 states. America is a series of islands, 60 of them, including the warfront of Nebrask, the California Archepelago, Georgiabama, and East Carolina. I got such flutters of laughter whenever I heard another tidbit of the United Islands’ names. Georgiabama made me outright laugh the first time I heard it. It struck me as a nice little snack that still had the familiar ring of home to it (though I don’t live in Georgia or Alabama.) There’s a pleasant creativity to the islands that is perfect for the story Sanderson wrote.


My only experience with Sanderson before reading The Rithmatist was with his closing out Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. I’d never heard of him before then, and I think I must have been living under a rock or something. A lot of me wondered what Sanderson’s own voice was like after reading Wheel of Time, because the only experience I had was of him writing someone else’s characters and world. I found some bits of writing that were obviously him, but so much of it still sounded like Jordan, I didn’t have a lot of insight into his style.

Yeah, his voice was there. In reading The Rithmatist, I was able to reconcile the two. Sanderson’s voice comes out clear in Wheel of Time, if The Rithmatist is any indication. Sanderson has an exciting clarity with just a tad of quirkiness to his writing style. He’s easy to follow while not being simplified. There is much to this novel that is character-centric, and the people populating this novel are spot-on. One could take just about any line of dialogue from the novel out of context and still know who said it. The three main characters, Joel, Melody, and Fitch, are easiest to identify. There’s no blandness to Joel as a protagonist. He’s definitely a teenage boy, and Sanderson nailed the qualities that make it easy to pin down his age. I guess that’s probably because Sanderson was once a teenage boy himself.

My Thoughts

Having read his closing of the Wheel of Time series, I was eager to get to know Sanderson on his own turf, and The Rithmatist was a good first choice. The magic system of rithmatics is intriguing, with the chapter openings often describing diagrams of different defenses or outlining a tidbit of rithmatic theory that ends up coming into play during that chapter or later ones. This was an excellent bit of extra understanding that prevented infodumps and keeps the reader from being lost in the rithmatic practices. That was masterfully done.

I’ll admit that, this having a mystery to it, I started guessing who I thought “done it”. I don’t normally do this, but sometimes I just can’t help being struck with a theory about how things will pan out. I ended up suspecting three people. One was merely on principle, one because I really thought he was the culprit, and the third because I was second-guessing my confidence in that second guess. Sanderson ended up completely flipping the mystery on its head for me, and while the very back of my head was shouting, “I knew it! I knew it!” I was pleased that I’d been duped. He’s avoided cliches with this mystery, but doesn’t rub it in if the reader was wrong.

The Rithmatist was an utter joy to experience. The depth of the magic system and how it ties in to religion and the history of this alternate America are well-thought-out and permeate the world. It makes sense. This is one of those novels where the protagonist may not always get what he wants, and neither does the reader… but both can be okay with that.

Would I Recommend This Book? Most definitely. The Rithmatist is YA, but anyone can enjoy this. Sanderson tells a tight and intriguing story with some great comedy, a great mystery, and fully fleshed-out characters you can’t help but want to spend more time with. I give The Rithmatist a chalk-drawn 4 out of 5 stars.

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