The Rithmatist is Brandon Sanderson’s newest YA book. Newest only in terms of publishing since he wrote it six or seven years ago. But then a tiny side project, aka finishing Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, got in the way.
With The Rithmatist Sanderson has written an alternative world “gearpunk” detective story filled with a typical Sanderson-style, intricately crafted, unique and incredibly detailed magic system I’m used to expecting these from his books and, so far, haven’t been disappointed.
Is it a typical Sanderson novel? I haven’t read his Alcatraz books, but The Rithmatist certainly isn’t a novel like Elantris, Warbreaker, Mistbornor The Way of Kings. We have the unique magic system, but the events don’t happen on the same epic scale his high fantasy books do. If I had to compare it to another of Sanderson’s works, it’s closest to his novella Legion. In both books we get an unlikely set of characters who work together to solve a crime.
“Rithmatics”, as the magic system is called, is chalk and geometry based, which gives the reader the benefit that in addition to it being well-described, the book offers numerous drawings and sketches showing exactly how it works between the chapters.
It’s the beginning of the 20th century and instead of automobiles and fossil fuel we get springrail trains, coaches with clockwork engines and automatic, clockwork-powered horses. The events of the book take place mostly on the campus of the Armedicus University on the island of New Britannia, one of the 50+ isles the United Isles of America consist of.
Armedicus is one of only a few academies where, in addition to all the normal students, Rithmatists are taught. This is an immensely important thing, since Rithmatics is the only reason humans where able to populate the previously uninhabited United Isles at all. And to hold them.
A Rithmatist possesses the ability to use chalk to draw geometric lines and 2D creatures that will ward, protect or attack other chalk drawings and even humans. While Rithmatists often duel for fun, to settle arguments or just to hone their skills, there is a more serious reason for their work. The ominous Tower of Nebrask, located in the middle of the United Isles, is a sinister place spawning wild chalklings, chalk-drawn monsters, which are a permanent threat to all of America.
The story evolves around Joel, a normal student on the campus who’s biggest (and only) hobby is Rithmatics. Only he isn’t a Rithmatist and his chalk drawings will never come to life. When Rithmatic students start to disappear from their homes, leaving chalk drawings and blood, his usually boring summer holiday is bound to become a lot more interesting.
It’s easy to relate to Joel, who is intelligent and friendly but because of his poverty an outsider nevertheless. He doesn’t have friends, something he shares with the eccentric girl Melody, the worst Rithmatics student on campus. The interaction of those two is comedic and the way Sanderson makes them become friends is funny, heartwarming and authentic.
One of the few weak points of The Rithmatistwas, at least for me, that it didn’t evoke strong emotions. It’s certainly gripping, but I don’t remember laughing out loud or secretly wiping some tears from my eyes. If you love books where characters are severely punished for making bad decisions, you’ll be disappointed too (but knowing his main characters, that’s probably something that’ll change).
There is a lot going on in this world and Sanderson manages to make it a colorful and real-feeling place (Europe conquered by Asia a long time ago? All Scots displaced and living in American diaspora?) which you dearly want him to explore more. Add an ending that only resolves the main plot line but not all plot lines and you get a book where you’re glad that it had the three magic words in the end. To be continued.
About the Reviewer: When Christian Abresch was fifteen, he stayed home to write a fantasy book instead of going with his parents and brother on vacation. More fantasy novels, poems and short stories followed in the years to come and since each was less crappy than the one before he hopes to get published someday. To keep his fingers on the pulse of fantasy, he loves browsing Fantasy-Faction with its articles, reviews and forums even though it caused an unnatural growing of his TBR, which worries him. Christian lives with his girlfriend and an imaginary cat in Berlin. Follow him on twitter: @xiaiswriting.