an earlier review of mine that adult fantasy is a realm I find inaccessible. Once again, I returned to the land of kid/teen magic with Brandon Sanderson's series-initiating The Rithmatist. I was a bit leery because Sanderson is by trade an epic fantasy author--he was chosen to finish Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, which is basically the embodiment of all things I fear and loathe in adult swords-and-sorcery--but it turns out my fears were a bit misplaced.
We are in an alternate version of history, at the beginning of the 20th century where Europe is ruled by some sort of East Asian power and the United States is actually a collection of islands called the United Isles. One island, Nebrask, has a mysterious Tower on it where creatures called chalklings dwell: living beings made out of chalks. A group of select citizens practice the art of Rithmatics, magically using chalk to create complex defense systems and chalklings of their own.
There are eight academies spread out across the isles where Rithmatists (chosen by a religious ceremony) study their arts, eventually spending four years fighting at Nebrask before returning to civilian life. Joel is a student at one of the universities, Armedius Academy, but much to his own disappointment, he is not a Rithmatist. His deceased father was a chalkmaker for the university and his mother is a cleaning woman.
One day, a newcomer professor named Nalizar challenges Professor Fitch, one of the old guard at Armedius. Through a chalk duel, Nalizar deposes Fitch from his position as a tenured professor of Rithmatic theory, a fact which angers and shocks Joel. Not soon after, a series Rithmatic student disappearances strike the campus, and Joel, Fitch and a failing Rithmatics student named Melody are on the case.
So what did I think of this book? Well, I thought the magic system was great. It's very unique, certainly, and that's something I value because not every book can or should be Harry Potter where everyone has wands and spells. The idea of Rithmatics is interesting simply because it's so original. Each chapter begins with what looks like an instructional page from a Rithmatics textbook, teaching readers as the book progresses. It's a great way to introduce the concepts to the readers without overwhelming them with terminology and information.
But this system is also the book's curse. Sanderson spends a little too much time talking about the chalk magic, forcing characters to have long, almost encyclopedic discussions that provide more information. In fact, I could feel that the author was a little too proud of his idea for how much precedence it took; it's not that there isn't a plot to The Rithmatist, but it feels like it's riding in the back seat of the car.
Joel is also annoying. As a main character, I should root for him and enjoy spending time with him, but he's either a bland person or irritating, whining too much about how he loves Rithmatic theory and isn't a Rithmatist or giving himself authority on subjects he has no experience in. Melody, as dramatic as she is, was a better character to spend time with than Joel. At least she had feelings and moods other than "aggravating" or "none".
The plot is fairly standard stuff, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Even retreading plot points that feels so familiar is okay because of the interesting scenes where the magic system is actually used and not just discussed. There are hints of bigger mysteries that are tiresomely suggested but never explored. I know this is book one, but some more information about what's happening at Nebrask--as opposed to saying several times "there's more to Nebrask than the public knows"--would have been appreciated.
It's a good start. I'm interested to see what Sanderson does with this world that he sets up, and I hope in future volumes he focuses more on action and character development and less on trying to indoctrinate us into the complexities of Rithmatics. Those moments made me feel dangerously close to adult fantasy. Much fear in my heart.
My rating: 4/5
The Rithmatist on Goodreads
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