“But this is getting ridiculous!” You surely scoff. “What have you read lately that wasn’t by Brandon Sanderson?”
Proudly, I puff out my chest and announce in a clear, melodious tone: “other stuff.”
I’ll get to reviewing the other stuff on the blog later.
We amicably continue our walk down my imaginary promenade while I regale you with my feelings on yet another excellent book by Brandon Sanderson: The Rhithmatist.
The Rithmatist is the first book in (what I believe will be) a trilogy adventure designed for a younger audience. Not only does it depart from Sanderson’s standard fare of more “mature” fantasy novels, it’s also a Steampunk(ish) book. When I first heard this, I imagined to myself that Brandon Sanderson was sitting at his computer and thinking, well, I already write about 300,000 words of incredible fantasy annually, but…what can I do to challenge myself?
The answer comes in the form of a most peculiar protagonist (at least in my view.) Joel is a young, impoverished boy who is able to attend an esteemed institution by virtue of his parents’ employment at the aforementioned school. His (recently deceased) father was a chalkmaker, which is extraordinarily significant in this book, which I’ll get to later.
Brandon Sanderson seems unable to separate himself from fantastically outlandish worldbuilding, which manifests itself in The Rithmatist in the form of the American archipelago and a world no longer besieged by the warmongering JoSeun empire (which as a result has most folks eating spicy noodle dishes,) where steam-powered animatronic crabs clip the grass and spring-powered trains allow the wealthy and powerful denizens of the United Isles (as the archipelago is known) to visit neighboring isles such as Georgiabama.
None of this is what makes the world of the Rithmatist truly unique, however. It is Rithmatics–the magical art of chalk drawing–that makes this world so Sandersonian. Some of the history of Rithmatics is addressed in the book, but to cut a long story short, a mysterious ceremony as part of the dominant religion of the world bestows a power upon a select group of humans; the power to make their chalk drawings come to life. These drawings manifest as defensive circles, and require a complex understanding of Arithmetic (get it? aRITHMetic?) and an extraordinarily steady hand. The defensive circles can be modified, allowing the user to draw chalklings–little chalk forms that come to life and do the Rithmatist’s bidding.
The problem is that there are wild chalklings at a distant battlefront, and Rithmatists are trained from the moment their power is granted to hold back the destructive tide of these chalken beasts. (Sanderson goes into several gruesome descriptions of how chalklings kill, which is wonderful and awful simultaneously. These things need to be held back, no doubt about it.)
Now that the stage is set we return to Joel. Joel is not a Rithmatist, but he loves Rithmatics. He studies and practices the art, even though his defensive circles are nothing more than lifeless drawings. This is my favorite aspect of his character, and another reason why I love Sanderson as an author. He gives us a protagonist with an unexpected character twist. Most of the time, a character is given power and must learn to use it. These characters oftentimes don’t take well to studies, or have a knack for the art that enables them to blow off their studies, which is what makes them unique and allows them to vanquish their foes. Joel is the polar opposite. He loves the study and dedicates all of his free time to it, yet he is powerless and has no chance of gaining the magical ability. He is then paired with a young Rithmatist, Melody, who has the gift of Rithmatics but cares little for it. As a result, they “complete” each other. I’ll say this: the final chapter of the book makes an excellent use of their compatibility. It was an awesome scene, and I actually pumped a clenched fist in solidarity when they played their unexpected hand.
The book is as close to fantasy as steampunk gets, as I see it, and that’s not a bad thing at all. It has a wonderful cast of characters who are colorful and relatable. It’s a murder mystery with fantastic plot twists, a totally unique magic system, and a wonderfully creative world. It’s the “wizard’s school” paradigm turned on its head, and it’s an absolute joy to read. It’s written with a young audience in mind, so it puts up very little challenge and feels a bit young, but that’s the point, so who can dock points for that? I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, but I think that, if you want to read Sanderson, you’re better off getting started on one of his “adult” projects. (I say “adult” only as a contrast to Young Reader, here.) This is one of those books that, once you become a die-hard fan like me, you’ll want to read because Brandon Sanderson is printed on the cover.