#CBR5 Maneuver #20 – The Rithmatist
Profile: Young Adult, Fantasy, Steampunk
After Action Report:
Oh thank god. A Sanderson book. I was beginning to get the vapors. Except these reviews are STILL running about two months behind my reading schedule, so it’s more like I’m starting to get the vapors again…
So Brandon Sanderson took a break from his endless list of epic fantasy projects in order to dabble in the ‘Young Adult’ fantasy market. The result is, in many ways, a well-written subversion of the Harry Potter books. Of course there’s more to The Rithmatist than that, but it does seem that Sanderson was aiming to distance himself as much as possible from the story of a kid chosen by fate to save the world from evil. Unfortunately, it’s still the story (and the characters) he ended up writing.
The Rithmatist’s protagonist is Joel Saxon, a super-nerd with an obsession with Rithmatics. Joel attends the prestigious Armedius Academy, one of only eight schools allowed to teach Rithmatists, not because he is good at Rithmatics, but because his parents worked there as a chalk-maker and a janitor. Joel has no magical abilities whatsoever, but his obsessive study of the art has given him incredible knowledge its theory and practice. When Rithmatist students begin disappearing, Joel is drawn to the case but quickly finds himself in over his head.
He is joined in his adventures by the petulant Melody, a Rithmatist with no desire to be one, and Professor Fitch, an aging professor of Rithmatics who loses his position in a duel and ends up tutoring Joel and Melody. This rag-tag bunch start by investigating some mysterious new Rithmatic forms that have appeared at the scenes of the student disappearances but get dragged in deep when Fitch and Joel both become targets.
Rithmatics is the magic system that Sanderson has created for this series, and typical of Sanderon’s world building, it is extremely impressive. Without getting into too much detail, Rithmatics basically allows its practitioners to animate chalk lines. Drawings become animated creatures while geometric lines and circles form defensive barriers. While most human-made chalklings are not harmful, Rithmatics was devised as a defense against wild chalklings that can eat people. Of course there are other applications as well, the most popular of which is Rithmatic dueling.
Joel is interesting precisely because he is a quintessential geek. He is an obsessive intellect who puts an enormous amount of effort into knowing everything there is to know about Rithmatics not in spite of, but because he cannot use it. He is also the reader’s gateway into the details of the magic system. Sanderson now has a legacy of creating magic systems that are simple on the surfaces but boast an incredible level of detail. Like many of his other books, we learn the system along with the characters, though this time around, the protagonist is doing most of the teaching. The Rithmatic designs (done by Ben McSweeney), that are featured on the pages between chapters are simply delightful and provide insight into this incredibly visual magic system.
Joel is actually more like Harry Potter’s Hermione than he is Harry. He is the conceptual genius, the brain who knows how to get things done. But unlike Hermione, who has power of her own, Joel is completely reliant on others to execute his strategies. Melody, on the other hand, is an artist at heart and has trouble with the mathematical nature of Rithmatic defenses, but because she is actually a Rithmatist she is a strong partner for Joel. The synergy between the two is very artificial, in that it is just a little too perfect, but makes for a strong core cast dynamic.
As per usual with a Brandon Sanderson novel, the setting and structure of the world are the best aspects of the book. Sanderson has created an alternative Earth, where North America is shattered into an archipelago of more than sixty islands, Europe is ruled by a Korean empire and South America is still under the control of the Aztecs. The magic system also includes elements of Australian Aboriginal and Native American beliefs, in the living chalklings and the mysterious power of cave drawings. And everything is powered by clockwork.
Where the book falters a little is in the character work. There’s a bit of writing down going on here, as Sanderson tries to adjust his style to the YA market. I think he overcorrected a bit. Joel and Melody are the biggest victims. They are set up to be total opposites of one another, and as such, they quickly degrade into caricatures composed of nothing but their opposite attributes. It’s only in the final chapters, when the situation pressurizes their relationship, that they both start to feel a little more like real people. Nalizar, the somewhat obvious red herring bad guy, is also a pretty transparent copy of Severus Snape. Though again, the final chapters reveal the beginnings of something much more interesting.
I’m on the fence about The Rithmatist at the moment. I do appreciate the strong worldbuilding and fascinating magic system, but The Rithmatist wasn’t telling an interesting story and wasn’t using its characters well. At the same time, it is very clear that this was just the setup for something much bigger. I think it is very possible that, with this setup out of the way, Sanderson will be free to build this stock cast into something impressive. On the other hand, a sequel could very easily turn into another The Hero of Ages where we lost all sight of the characters beneath layers of their behavioral quirks.
For the moment, I’ll recommend The Rithmatist with the caveat that if you didn’t like Harry Potter, (or really, REALLY liked it) you might find this iteration of the same story disappointing. But I strongly suspect the real reason to pick up this series hasn’t been written yet.