Fantasy, Fiction, Mystery, Speculative Fiction, Young Adult

The Rithmatist

Cover image for The Rithmatist by Brandon Sandersonby Brandon Sanderson

Illustrated by Ben McSweeney

ISBN 978-0-7653-2032-2

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Midwinter 2013. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.

Caught up in the moment, Joel finished drawing the Line of Vigor in front of him, raising his hand with a flourish. With surprise, he realized that some thirty students had gathered to listen to him, and he could feel them holding breaths, expecting his drawing to come to life. It didn’t. Joel wasn’t a Rithmatist. His drawings were just ordinary chalk. Everyone knew that, Joel most of all...”

Popular fantasy author Brandon Sanderson makes his YA debut with The Rithmatist, a genre-bending fantasy/mystery set in an alternate universe America in the 20th century. The United Isles of America are held together largely by the mutual need to contain the dangerous wild chalklings on the central isle of Nebrask. Thanks to the discovery of Rithmatics—a magical system based on geometry and artistic ability—the Rithmatists have been able to hold their foe at bay for centuries. But recently, students from Armedius Academy—one of the schools that trains these crucial defenders—have been going missing, leading to speculation that something has escaped from Nebrask.

Although Joel loves nothing more than Rithmatics, he missed his chance to become a Rithmatist, and instead attends the general school at Armedius, where his mother is a maid, and his father was once the school’s chalkmaker. However, Joel’s theoretical interest in Rithmatics proves to be a boon when he is assigned to be a research assistant for Professor Fitch, a brilliant but disgraced Rithmatist who is trying to solve the mystery of the missing students. Together with Fitch’s pupil Melody—a remedial Rithmatics student who would be glad to trade places with Joel—they must solve the case before more students disappear, threatening the country’s defences and delicate alliances.

A new series and a new universe means that Sanderson has a lot of world-building to do in The Rithmatist. After briefly launching us into the conflict in the opening chapter, Sanderson turns to a much needed explanation of the world’s complex magical system. Here, Joel’s passion for Rithmatics carries the reader through what otherwise might be a particularly high buy in. Rithmatists possess the ability to magically animate or empower chalk drawings, creating defensive circles and constructs, and two-dimensional creatures called chalklings that attack opponents. The defensive systems are complex, and each chapter includes drawings that illustrate the different strategies. Spreading this information throughout the book prevents the reader from becoming overloaded, but the beginning is undoubtedly slower-paced than the conclusion. In addition to the helpful diagrams, Ben McSweeney provides drawings of chalklings, and beautiful chapter headers that add atmosphere to the book.

Although The Rithmatist is set at a magical school, Sanderson manages to deftly dodge the Hogwarts stereotypes, and create his own unique setting in Armedius. The majority of students, like Joel, are not Rithmatists, although most come from wealthy families. In general, beware of comparing this book to Harry Potter, as your assumptions will lead you astray. From setting, to plot, to characters, Sanderson rarely makes the expected choice, making The Rithmatist an extremely successful mystery.

Although The Rithmatist ostensibly features a male-female duo, Melody is left out of a great deal of the action. Set in an alternative 20th Century, Sanderson explicitly addresses the idea of changing gender roles within his culture. This dynamic often seems to be at play when Fitch and Joel exclude Melody from their investigation. Her outspokenness and girly unicorn chalklings don’t quite fit in to their ideas of a proper Rithmatist, and since both men are fascinated by Rithmatics, her indifference is off-putting.  Fortunately, the ending strongly hints that she will play a stronger role in future books in the series.

While Sanderson has written a good mystery, the stand-out here is the wonderful alternative history setting, and the unique magical system. Despite being a YA novel with a school setting and a teenage protagonist, fantasy readers of all ages who swear by good world-building will not want to miss The Rithmatist. (Those who think world-building is boring are advised to stay home).

Contemporary, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, LGBTQIA+, Mystery, Mythology, Romance, Speculative Fiction, Young Adult

Spring/Summer Fiction Preview

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting in Seattle. In addition to attending workshops and hanging out with other folks in the library profession, I was able to attend a Book Buzz event, and visit publishers at their booths on the exhibit floor to find out about the new fiction titles coming this spring and summer. I didn’t get much reading done this past week, so in lieu of sharing a review, here’s a peek at some of the forthcoming titles I am excited about for the first half of 2013.

Blood of Dragons (978-0-06-211685-7)
Cover image for Blood of Dragons Well known for writing fantasy trilogies in interlocking worlds, Robin Hobb is adding a fourth and final volume to The Rain Wilds Chronicles after a cliff hanger ending in volume three. The dragons and their keepers have reached Kelsingra, and the rebirth of the Elderlings is imminent. But although Kelsingra is no longer lost, the legendary silver wells on which the dragons depend are nowhere to be found. The keepers must steep themselves in the magical memories of the city to try to find out what has become of the wells before the dragons die. This series Harper Voyager continues April 9, 2013. (Update: read my review.)

Categories: Fantasy

Golden Boy (978-1-4767-0580-4)

Cover image for Golden BoyThe Walkers seem to be the perfect family. Karen Walker is a high power criminal attorney, and her husband Steve is about to stand for the British Parliament. Their son Max is the popular golden boy of his school. But for Karen, it all feels like a charade, and one that could fall apart at any moment. Steve’s candidacy for public office means that their lives are about to be laid bare to intensive media scrutiny. Between the publicity and the return of one of Max’s childhood friends, the Walkers are afraid that the secret of Max’s intersex condition will be exposed. Abigail Tarttelin’s novel is due out from Atria Books (Simon and Schuster) on May 21, 2013.

Categories: LGBT, Contemporary

The Golem and the Jinni (978-0-06211-083-1)

Cover image for The Golem and the JinniIn Helene Wecker’s debut novel, an unusual pair of magical immigrants arrive in New York City in 1899, creating an improbable connection between Jewish and Arabic mythology.  Ahmad is a fire jinni, accidently release from his lamp into the streets of the city. Chava is a Golem whose master, a Kabbalist magician, dies on the voyage from Poland to America, leaving her to make her way alone in a new country. United by their common immigrant experience, but then driven apart by their disparate heritage, only a “powerful threat” can bring them together again. HarperCollins is recommending this title for fans of The Night Circus, A Discovery of Witches, and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Look for this HarperCollins book on April 23, 2013.

Categories: Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Mythology

If You Could Be Mine (978-1-61620-251-4)

Cover Image for If You Could Be MineSara Farizan’s debut novel is a young adult title about forbidden love in Iran. Sahar and Nasrin are best friends, but they are also in love, and in Iran homosexuality is a crime. Nasrin must marry the prosperous doctor her parents have selected for her. The girls keep their love a secret, passing only as friends in public. When Sahar learns that while homosexuality is a crime, being transgender is not, she must consider whether it would be worth transitioning in order to be able to love and even marry Nasrin openly. The only problem is that Sahar doesn’t identify as a man. This title is due out from Algonquin on August 20, 2013.

Categories: Young Adult, LGBT, Romance

The Rithmatist (978-0-7653-2032-2)

Cover image for The RithmatistTor is hyping this title as Brandon Sanderson’s YA debut, since his previous books are classified as either middle grade or adult. Rithmatists are powerful magicians who use their skills to bring creatures known as Chalklings to life from two-dimensional chalk models. These Rithmatist-controlled creatures are all that protect the American Isles from being overrun by Wild Chalklings. The son of a chalkmaker at the Rithmatists’ academy, Joel dreams of being a Rithmatist himself. It seems more likely that he will follow in his father’s footsteps, until students at the school begin disappearing, and Joel must help solve the mystery. Following shortly on the heels of the conclusion of the Wheel of Time series, The Rithmatist is due out on May 14, 2013.

Categories: Young Adult, Fantasy, Mystery

I received ARCs of a number of these titles, so look for reviews closer to the release dates.