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 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.
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 world-building, Sanderson has created a magic system that is so inventive and detailed that that readers who appreciate games of strategy and tactics just may want to bring Rithmatics to life in our world. (Synopsis from Goodreads)
I really enjoyed The Rithmatist, though I have to admit I wasn’t at all sure about it at first. The chalk magic was... weird, and to be honest, didn’t seem that useful. So rithmatists can battle other rithmatists in impressive chalk-magic duels, but in real life, isn’t any normal person with a gun or a bucket of water at a fairly big advantage? Scribbling protective circles and chalk monsters takes time, after all, and chalk’s quite easy to scrape or wash away.
Well, actually, I was wrong to doubt, as all these things are explained and become much clearer later. As the book progressed, it became obvious that chalk magic is actually a lot more powerful than I’d thought, and that the seemingly arbitrary rules of it do actually make a lot of sense. I’m not sure I still fully understood the chalk magic by the end, but I did have full confidence that the author knew exactly how it worked, and that the world was working on great internal consistency. No getting out of situations by suddenly introducing new abilities, but instead by using the established rules to outwit the enemy. I really enjoy that kind of thing, and appreciated it here.
I do think, however, that it took a little too long to get to this stage. I spent quite a long time frustrated by the chalk magic and even a bit bored by it. The main character is obsessed with it, and so talks about it constantly, and his enthusiasm didn’t really spark my own. This is a shame, as, by the end of the book, I was really getting into the magic and enjoyed the various battles and duels that came up. I liked how there was a maths aspect to the magic – the circles must be as precise as possible, the angles of any lines just right, and so on – but also a more creative element – the more detailed and imaginative the chalklings, the more effective they are. By the end of the story, the magic is fascinating, and I was impressed that the author could make chalk drawings such a creepy concept.
The story itself is very slow. The book spends a long time with Joel and Melody in the school, learning about rithmatics in detail and trying to solve the mystery of the kidnapped rithmatists. Everything had a familiar feel, and at points felt very similar to Harry Potter (not necessarily a criticism; I love Harry Potter!). The mystery element was very good, and I enjoyed Joel and Melody’s growing relationship, but I couldn’t help wishing that the whole thing would move along a little faster. I wanted to know more about Nebrask and the Wild Chalklings, the ceremony, and so many other things, and felt like this book was perhaps too much a 'scene setter' plot, introducing the world so that later books can go on to more interesting places and stories.
But, as I said, I did really enjoyed this book. It has a fascinating world, a kind of alt.history steampunk with a fun setting. It’s not quite our world (the States of America are the Isles of America, for one thing), but similar enough to be almost the same. The connection of the church to the rithmatic magic is intriguing, and I can’t wait to find out more about why that’s the case. The chalklings are surprisingly creepy, and once we get past all the theory, the magic is exciting. I liked all the characters, and particularly the fact that Joel is not a rithmatist or ‘super special’. He and Melody really have to work together to achieve greatness, which was nice. I also liked Melody’s melodramatic character. I love the idea of the Wild Chalklings and the strange figure that Joel encountered. I think they may not turn out to be the unambiguous enemy that the characters think of them as, and I can’t wait to find out more in later books. Finally, the book itself is so nicely presented, from the gorgeous cover to the illustrations and diagrams inside.
So, while The Rithmatist had a slow start, and took a while to convince me about the magic, I did really enjoy it in the end, and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next. A fun read!
Thank you to Orion Children's Books for providing a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.