Illustrated by Ben McSweeney
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).