Review: ‘The Rithmatist’ by Brandon Sanderson

More than anything, Joel wants to be a Rithmatist. Chosen by the Master in a mysterious inception ceremony, Rithmatists have the power to infuse life into two-dimensional figures known as Chalklings. Rithmatists are humanity’s only defense against the Wild Chalklings—merciless creatures that leave mangled corpses in their wake. 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 study 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.

“Brandon Sanderson writes yet another novel full of amazing worldbuilding and story misdirection.” I fear I’m starting to sound like a bit of a broken record when it comes to his work, honestly. But it’s truuuuue.

Things that make The Rithmatist stand out from Sanderson’s usual fare are the target market (young adult) and the consequent reduction in the plot’s complexity from the typical Sanderson thousand-page monster. There are fight scenes, a little blood, and descriptions of some scary events, but otherwise this book would be suitable for younger teenagers.

The thing I loved most about The Rithmatist was the magical system, and … okay, yes, that is another pretty standard response from me when it comes to his work. In this case, the magic is derived from empowered geometry and art, drawn with chalk. Different shapes (circles, lines, sine waves) have different effects and can be combined in various ways depending on the strategy of the rithmatist. And simple creatures can be drawn that come to two-dimensional life and follow simple instructions. From such a straightforward premise emerge a quite complex series of strategies used in duelling and combat against the wild chalklings.

I have never been so excited about geometry in my life!

Joel is a glorified maths nerd. He has no particular interest in or aptitude for drawing chalklings (just as well, given he is also not a rithmatist) but is excellent at understanding and drawing the different patterns. He tends towards laziness and emotional insensitivity at the start of the story, but does improve as the tale progresses. Melody, a rithmatic student who is prone to overblown dramatics and is a master of chalklings but awful with rithmatic lines, is shunned by the other rithmatic students due to her incompetence (and, let’s be honest, her trying personality). I liked both of them, but was more fond of their introverted, kindly and conflict averse professor, Fitch.

Despite what you might assume, there is no romance in this book. Sanderson usually has a romantic plotline (although he tends towards awkwardness and the hottest anything might get is a chaste kissing scene), but not in this case. I suspect that Melody and Joel may get together down the track, especially given how regularly he notices that she’s pretty, but they at least become friends first, which I heartily endorse.

The mystery is of the whodunnit variety (I fell for the red herring; I’ll guess right next time, Sanderson, I swear). The Rithmatist isn’t as dark as his other young adult series, The Reckoners, but I preferred its mystery feel to the latter’s car chases and gun fights.

I definitely recommend this one!

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