|Book Review: The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson
More than anything, Joel wants to be a Rithmatist. Rithmatists have the power to infuse life into two-dimensional figures known as Chalklings. Rithmatists are humanity’s only defense against the Wild Chalklings. Having nearly overrun the territory of Nebrask, the Wild Chalklings now threaten all of the American Isles.
As the son of a lowly chalkmaker at Armedius Academy, Joel can only watch as Rithmatist students learn the magical art that he would do anything to practice. Then students start disappearing—kidnapped from their rooms at night, leaving trails of blood. Assigned to help the professor who is investigating the crimes, Joel and his friend Melody find themselves on the trail of an unexpected discovery—one that will change Rithmatics—and their world—forever.
My 8th Sanderson book turned out to be an unusual combination of steampunk, detective story, and magic system.
Have you ever doodle with chalk and think to yourself, man, those two-dimensionals monsters I just drew look scary and murderous. They would make a great villain.
Well, Brandon Sanderson did.
He also thought that a piece of chalk is a valid choice of weapon.
Let me give you a teaser. A climax battle scene in The Rithmatist is of two people kneeling on the ground furiously drawing with their chalks. And it was fun as hell.
The Rithmatist is the first book in the Rithmatist series, one of his two YA series.
I’ll be honest with you. I had low expectation prior to reading this book. Well, as low as I can get considering it’s Brandon Sanderson’s book (it’s still pretty high as far as expectation goes). I planned to read Steelheart first, because that was the more popular one. But I had bought The Rithmatist ebook when it was offered at bargain price (because I’m thrifty) and I thought to myself whatever, I will read ALL of his books anyway.
Well. I finished it in two days. I could have finished it in one day but I have a blog to maintain. Lol.
The Rithmatist offers all of these and more: a solid magic system, a whodunnit plot, an unusual choice of monsters (“chalklings”), and a protagonist with no superpower.
Let’s talk about them.
Brandon Sanderson is always dependable when it comes to writing a consistent intricate magic system. He also has crazy imagination and finds inspiration for them from all sort of things. The magic system in this book is called rithmatics. With rithmatics, chosen people with special ability (the rithmatists) could bring their chalk drawings to life. There are 4 basic rithmatic drawing: line of forbiddance, line of warding, line of vigor, and line of making. The strength of their magic depends on the accuracy of their drawing. For example, if you draw a circle as a line of warding, its strength will depend on the symmetry and accuracy of the circle. The more perfect it is, the more strength it has. Line of making (chalkling) is even more fun. You can draw a dragon and it’ll come alive, assuming you’re a rithmatist. It’ll remain two-dimensional though, so your dragon will crawl on the floor instead of flying at your enemy—which I really appreciate because it’s consistent. Chalk drawing is 2D so your little monsters are also 2D. Perhaps if they used 3D printer…
Part of the fun of The Rithmatist—and I gather it’s not as exciting for everyone—is the focus on battle strategy. You’ll find illustration of various defense system and you get to think which defense is the best for you if, for example, your enemy using Easton defense. It was really fun. I LOVE STRATEGY GAME.
The Rithmatist reads like a detective story. Our protagonist, Joel, went to school with other normal kids and the rithmatists. Then, the rithmatist students outside campus started to disappear one by one and the only evidence left was some blood and chalk drawings. Our protagonist helped the professor and the police to uncover the mystery behind the unique chalk drawing to find out who was behind all of these kidnappings (murders?).
You know what genre I love beside fantasy? Thrillers! Legal thrillers! Detective story! So YES to this plot.
Having said that, I have to (grudgingly) admit that Brandon Sanderson is not the best mystery writer. The mystery is there, sure, but it doesn’t force you to keep reading to find out whodunnit. I enjoyed the story, but I didn’t spend the night tossing and twisting on my bed thinking who was the kidnapper. It was not as engrossing as it’s supposed to be. It was still good, more than good even, just not spectacular. Like I said, I had too high of a baseline for Sanderson.
Back in the intro, I’ve briefly mentioned the monsters in this book. They’re called chalklings, as in they were brought to life through chalk drawing. I have also mentioned that they’re 2D. But that doesn’t make them any less horrifying. Imagine a drawing of a snake crawling up your skin, eating your skin and killing you layer by layer, literally peeling you off. Isn’t that scary?
Joel is the hero of this book. He is a normal student with no rithmatic ability, but Joel is fascinated by rithmatic. He knew more about the defense system than the regular rithmatist student. He could draw a nearly perfect circle but cannot bring it to life. Let’s just say he has the brain, but not the muscle.
It’s an interesting choice made by Sanderson, and I am sure he has his reasons. It shows how regular person could do something special without having to turn him into a mutant or a superhero.
Joel himself is nothing special as a character. He was presumptuous, and at times could be *gasp* a jerk. I found this quite surprising because usually Brandon Sanderson’s biggest strength besides world-building is characterization. But it seems he forgot to inject Joel with likeability formula. :/ Joel was not despicable though. I found his eagerness to learn and to help to be his redeeming quality, but he was not memorable enough to merit him a spot in the already crowded space of my favorite Sanderson characters.
Brandon Sanderson fans will enjoy this book as it has his signature world-building and imagination, but it’s unique in the way that it’s the first steampunk book he’s ever published.
I also recommend this book to people who like fantasy, steampunk (gearpunk), detective story, and battle strategy. All of you Warcraft fans, come read this book.
Of note, this is one of Brandon Sanderson’s shorter and lighter (literally and figuratively) book. So, if you have been standing there on the fence of Sandersonites camp, wondering if he is as good as we claimed, you might want to consider giving The Rithmatist a try.