The Rithmatist

9 Overall Score
Story: 9/10
Writing: 8/10
Concepts: 10/10

Original premise | Incredible world-building | Realistic, sympethetic characters | Intelligent story

Abrupt ending | Stereotyped characters | Slightly complex for intended audience

The Rithmatist

Author: Brandon Sanderson

Publisher: Tor Teen

Genre: Steampunk, Fantasy, Teen, Alternative Historical

Story

The wild chalklings appeared long ago, long before the American Isles knew how to defend against them. But after Rithmatics—the art of drawing 2D, geometrical structures and creatures with chalk and bringing them to life—was mastered, the people of the Isles gained the ability to strike back at the creatures, confining them to the harsh, Nebrask wild-lands, under the vigilance of an army of Rithmatists.

Joel isn’t a Rithmatist. His father was a lowly chalk-maker, killed in an accident when Joel was young. His mother works endlessly, just to afford their meager living-space and Joel’s education. And while Joel isn’t complaining much, he has his sights set on much higher things—becoming a Rithmatist himself.

Unfortunately for Joel, the Master didn’t choose him to be a Rithmatist during his inception ceremony… but that doesn’t stop him from learning all he can. Using any resources available to him, Joel practices drawing Rithmatic lines and sneaks into classrooms at Armedius Academy in order to observe the art from teachers and students.

Everything changes when a long-term Rithmatics professor named Fitch is out-dueled by a newcomer—a veteran Rithmatist named Validar, who takes over Fitch’s students and revolutionizes the manner of teaching Rithmatics. With Fitch demoted to tutoring students over the summer, Joel jumps at the opportunity to be his student and learn all he can from the ex-Rithmatics professor. Joining him is Melody, a Rithmatist who draws the most detailed unicorn chalklings at the academy… but can’t sketch a circle to save her life.

When Rithmatist students begin disappearing from their homes—leaving blood trails and frenzied chalk drawings in their place—Joel joins the investigation to discover just who… or what… is behind it all. What he discovers is a threat, not only to the academy, but to the entirety of the American Isles.

And it’s up to Joel to unveil it in all its chalkling ugliness.

The World of Rithmatics

Sanderson’s knack for creating entirely believable worlds and world systems shines through once again. In The Rithmatist, a unique combat system comes into play. Characters draw geometrical shapes, lines, and creatures (called chalklings) that take defensive and offensive measures, depending on their use. In true Sanderson form, the rules and methods for using Rithmatics are as complex as the workings of the steampunk steeds in this novel. That being said, readers only need be familiar with the most basic concepts of the combat system in order to comfortably understand the plot. Readers hungry for more—or who simply find the concept of Rithmatics intriguing—will enjoy reading the end-chapter diagrams and sketches, detailing different Rithmatic tactics and lines.

rithmatist-the-four-rithmatic-linesAside from the Rithmatics, there’s a rich history at play. As the name might imply, the world of the American Isles nearly puts this novel in the “alternative historical or sci-fi historical” genre. Sanderson creates a fresh background for his novel , dropping in cultural tidbits throughout the story’s progression, eventually painting a more thorough picture of the world, its peoples, and its history.

The Rithmatist is labeled as “steampunk,” and, while the cover tries to sell the novel as such, the story itself reads much like a typical fantasy. The steampunk elements don’t necessarily feel tacked on, but they still seem more like scenery than plot devices—backdrops to add color to the plotline, if you would.

Characters are sympathetic, dimensional, and interesting. Joel is a typical, underdog protagonist, but feels fresh to the young adult genre. Having dreamed all his life of being a Rithmatist, Joel must eventually confront the fact that it’s just not meant to be, and chooses to use his abilities and Rithmatics knowledge in order to benefit others. He isn’t a hero that gets his dreams and happy ending handed to him on a plate, and I found myself respecting both Joel and Sanderson as a result.

The adult characters are smart, capable, and valuable to the story and protagonist. In avoiding the young adult trend to make the teens intelligent and the adults bumbling and incompetent, Sanderson paints a realistic, practical picture for young readers. Older characters are marked by maturity, younger ones by the growing pains of life. Sanderson is one of the few authors who seems to understand both the human mind and heart, while also having the ability to present these understandings in a plausible, written form.

The novel climaxes in a series of well-contrived plot twists that readers likely won’t predict. Sanderson practically toys with his readers, dropping innocuous hints in some places (that become fatal hints later) and seemingly incriminating hints in other places (that are eventually disproved with logic). These all weave together to create a roller-coaster of “didn’t-see-it-coming” moments—where tested plot elements are revealed to be deceptive, and long-standing characters aren’t quite what they seem.

rithmatist-basic-easton-defenseA Few Wild Chalklings

Perhaps the only real drawback to The Rithmatist is its complexity. Sanderson doesn’t talk down to his teen audience, and he writes with the confidence that these young minds can grasp his complicated world system. It’s another reason to respect Sanderson. That being said, the story centers around concepts of geometry, history, and mathematics, and—after a rousing opening—the plot offers interesting concepts and intriguing premises, but little action until the end. It’s possible for less analytical readers to grow bored during the first half of the novel, but those with a love for systematic depth and character development will eat the whole thing up.

The Rithmatist lacks a strong diversity in its female cast, and these roles feel just a tad stereotyped. Melody is spunky, air-headed, girly, and loves drawing unicorns. Joel’s mother spends her days scrubbing floors and working as a maid. And so on. That being said, the story has a traditional feel to it, and with this in mind, the stereotyping feels more classical than cliché.

The role of the religious system in the story comes across vague at best, though I expect that this will be expanded upon in the sequel.  In terms of the novel’s ending, The Rithmatist builds to a thrilling set of climaxes and then ends rather abruptly—perhaps too abruptly. All the same, the ending is satisfying, and the harmonious synchronization between the two heroes is a powerful, climatic moment.

Conclusion

Hardcore fans of Sanderson may find that The Rithmatist doesn’t hold the intricacy of his adult novels, but will none-the-less find themselves enjoying his latest adventure. It’s an excellent place to dive into the writing of Brandon Sanderson—an ideal place, even, as his novels only get more innovative per his target audience.

Fans of Harry Potter will likely enjoy the similarities found in The Rithmatist—an academy of students, a unique “magic” system, and a Rithmatist student showdown known as Melee (which induces rather Quidditch-like vibes).

Indeed, providing the sequel outshines—or at least matches—the first novel, this series could go on to become a classic. It certainly holds the potential, and the underlying magic, to do so.

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Author: Casey Covel View all posts by
Casey Lynn Covel (known online as “Cutsceneaddict”) is an award-winning, published writer, avid reader, and aspiring author. She runs a nerdy writing blog called Meek-Geek and founded PROJECT: Magic Kingdom Hearts in 2012. When she’s not writing for Geeks Under Grace, Florida Geek Scene, Beneath the Tangles, or FROM JAPAN, she enjoys cosplaying, and has won several awards for her work. Follow her on Instagram for her latest cosplay endeavors. #meekischic

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