Having never read any of Brandon Sanderson books, The Rithmatist is an interesting book to start with because I’ve heard how different it is from Sanderson’s other novels. I’m actually glad that I started off with this book so that I didn’t have any of the authors work in my head to compare it to. That is something that allowed me to enjoy this book much more, without having to overthink it every step of the way. Ultimately, I feel that’s the best way to read The Rithmatist; by dispelling everything you think you know about YA fiction and books about magic thus far.
The Rithmatist is about a young man named Joel, whose life’s dream is to be a rithmatist. Unfortunately he appears to have missed his chance to become one. A rithmatist is a person who has the ability to draw a selection of magical markings on the ground using chalk to make them come to life. Much of the magic is defensive and at Joel’s school, rithmatic students are taught how to draw different defences that protect them from chalklings. Chalklings are offensive creatures that are drawn by rithmatists for the purpose of attacking both rithmatists and regular people. Chalkings are capable of eating the flesh of a living person, so they’re no joke. The only way to get rid of a Chalkling is by having it dismissed by the rithmatist who drew it, or by tossing a specially concocted acid to eliminate it from existence.
Usually when a person fails to become a rithmatist at a young age, they become uninterested in rithmatics entirely. But not Joel. Joel is so invested in rithmatics that he can draw rithmatic lines better than actual rithmatists. Joel’s invested interest leads him down a path of conspiracy where he must assist a respected rithmatic professor uncover a mystery that has led to rithmatic students being captured.
Along the way, Joel pairs up with a failing rithmatist student by the name of Melody. Melody’s rithmatic defenses are considered bad, but she takes pride in her chalklings. What’s great about Melody’s character is that she adds flavour to a story that may have been somewhat bland without her. She compliments Joel’s straight and narrow ways by giving him more of a human side. Both characters give the other purpose; especially considering Joel is able to help Melody improve her defences and Melody is able to make Joel’s rithmatic drawings come to life like he wishes he could.
There is no way I can do justice by explaining how well thought out the rithmatic system is in this book. Brandon Sanderson spent a lot of years thinking over these ideas before putting pen to paper and it shows. Every logical question is accounted for, so there’s hardly a time where you can think the system doesn’t make sense within its realms.
The book also includes illustrations that detail how the different markings work and each example of a rithmatic defence is annotated to help you understand its strengths and weaknesses. Chalklings can also be drawn in any shape or form that the rithmatist desires, so we often get a visual on the type of chalkling that is appearing in battle. Admittedly, if it were just a case of reading about rithmatics with no visual cues, I may have been overwhelmed by all of the jargon and therefore unable to visualise it in my head.
Although the writing in The Rithmatist is often descriptive, it never comes off boring as Sanderson is able to hook you in with a continued interest in the narrative. The world building is filtered in along the way so that the chunks of history we get are relevant to the current events of the story.
The Rithmatist takes place in a fictional version of the USA called the United Isles of America, which is basically America if the states were split into their own separate islands. When a rithmatist finishes their studies at Joel’s school they must serve at a rithmatic base in the island of Nebrask. Much of the conspiracy that unravels comes from Nebrask, and the reverence toward the location suggests that we’ll get to learn more about what goes on there in future.
Yes, that does mean that The Rithmatist is intended to be a series; which leads to my only real gripe with the book. The build up to the end is paced so perfectly that as a reader you’re not really expecting there to be a cliffhanger that sets up the next book. I think this book could have rounded up in a much more satisfying way that allows the book to be enjoyed as a singular reading experience – just in the off change that someone isn’t interested in picking up a new series at the time of reading – but after a pretty incredible scene, you’re left hanging.
That’s not to say that the book doesn’t deliver a good climax. In fact it delivers two of them. I just feel it could have been wrapped up a little tighter.
The mystery element is never predictable, and it will keep you guessing who the culprit is. Even the character that seems to be a red herring throughout the plot is given an interesting double twist. The unpredictability of the plot makes me keen to read more of Sanderson’s work.
When reading The Rithmatist, it’s easy to make comparisons to Harry Potter. When discussing the book with a friend afterwards, we mutually agreed that it’s possible Brandon Sanderson included subtle nods to the Potter books. It’s clear that Sanderson both loves and respects J.K Rowling’s hit series, so it’s plausible that he’s self-aware of the fact his story draws some inspiration it. I personally wanted to forget everything I knew about Harry Potter when reading The Rithmatist because I was eager to digest the story without comparing it to a juggernaut book series every step of the way. Ultimately, The Rithmatist is far from being some Harry Potter knock-off, even if some of the themes are comparative. Sanderson introduces some of the most refreshing concepts to magic and fantasy, so I feel his work deserves to be judged off its own merits rather than what’s already been done before him.
If you’re the type that considers fantasy an intimidating genre, then you have nothing to fear. The Rithmatist isn’t dense with its descriptions and world building. The character struggles are relative to what we face in the real world, so magic aside, it isn’t too far removed from reality. For that reason, The Rithmatist is a fantastic book that I would recommend to everyone.
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