Monday, June 22, 2015

Book Review: The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson

The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson
Rithmatist Series Book One
Tor Books
14 May 2013
384 Pages
Middlegrade Fantasy
3.5 Stars
Barnes & Noble; Book Depository; Goodreads

(I bought my hardcover copy at The Book Outlet)

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.

I am not usually a reader of middlegrade fiction, but Brandon Sanderson is such a talented writer that I was curious about The Rithmatist. So, when the #YearOfCosmere read-a-long chose this book for June, I decided to join.

I was wrapped up in the story within the first few chapters and was invested the entire book.

Joel is the main character, and he is obsessed with the Rithmatists, practitioners of this novel's magic system. However, even though he's highly intelligent and knowledgeable in the study of the art, he isn't one of them. Because of this, he is a poor student without any drive or prospects for his future.  At the same time, he is somewhat of an outcast at his fancy private school. Prestige and economic status make clear delineations between him and others, so, though his fellow students are cordial toward him, he isn't truly one of them.

As I started to learn about Joel, I felt such compassion toward him. Not only was he shut out from the only thing he loved, but he was also all alone while battling to find a place for himself. No friends, a deceased father, and an incredibly busy mom left him completely isolated. Much of the story has to do with Joel finding where he belongs.

Another aspect of his character that I really loved was the effect his late father had on him. There is a point in the story when one of the characters makes a strong connection between Joel's motivations and his father, and I found it so touching.

"Melody glanced to the side, looking over the clippings and the pictures. 'So that's why,' she whispered. 'Why what?' 'Why you're so fascinated by Rithmatics,' she said. 'It's because of your father.' Joel stared at the wall, with its patterns and defenses. His father would talk at length, telling Joel which defenses were good against which offensive structures. Other boys had played soccer with their fathers. Joel had drawn defenses with his" (pg.  263).

Melody is a Rithmatist student whom Joel eventually befriends. Though they appear to be quite different at first, they actually have a few important things in common. Though privileged in terms of finances and being a Rithmatist, Melody is as much of an outcast as Joel because she's no good at Rithmatics. Ostracized by her fellow classmates and often discouraged by teachers, she regrets her position and wishes for a more normal life.

Melody isn't the most fleshed out character. Very little of her back story is revealed, but her personality is clear. A nosy , bull-headed, rash, insecure girl, she digs into matters that don't concern her, despite multiple warnings to the contrary, simply because she loathes being left out. She covers up her insecurity with attitude, but once she befriends Joel, her loyal, softer side is revealed. By the end of the book, she too grows in confidence and begins to come into her own.

Sanderson is known to be talented in world-building, and this work is no exception. I really liked the alternate America in a world in which Asia is the hub of power. He did well at sewing Asian influence into the setting. I also really enjoyed all the steampunk details, from the wind-up trains to the clockwork horses. It is never overbearing but very naturally folded into the rest of the story.

The magic system is also very carefully explained and laid out, as well. Not only does the reader learn about it as Joel and Melody do, but there are also instructional illustrations throughout to make the exact drawings clearer. (I'm not sure if every edition is illustrated, but I can't imagine reading this novel without them.) Though the mechanics and practice are explained, as well as a bit of the history, there remains some mystery as to the source of power and why practitioners are chosen. This was frustrating to me as I read, but it also made sense in the context of the world. Rithmatics is closely tied to Sanderson's version of the Catholic church, and anything wrapped up in religion gains an air of mystique. I do hope, however, that my many questions will be answered in the next book.

The story is plot-driven but not fast-paced. There isn't any true action until the end, but since it reads like a mystery, with crime scenes and unending questions, this didn't bother me. Rather, I was left trying to figure out who the criminal was, becoming so paranoid that I suspected almost every character in turn. Moreover, since it  a Sanderson book, he included some spectacular plot twists that were completely unexpected.

I was initially unaware that this isn't a stand-alone novel, so, as the story wrapped up, I was confused about the lack of closure. However, after realizing that this is the first of at least two books (the sequel yet unwritten), I was much more satisfied with the ending.

The book is written in third person, almost exclusively from Joel's perspective, and it's written as one time line, which moves forward chronologically. This basic structure fits the casual writing style.

Coming-of-age and being comfortable in your own skin were the two most prevalent themes, which is fitting since this is a young adult novel. Though I am far beyond the target age group, I found this unique way of approaching classic themes refreshing.

Overall, I enjoyed this book, and I will definitely read the sequel when it is released. I give it 3.5 stars. 

Have you read The Rithmatist? What did you think of it? Tell me in the comments. 

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Happy reading!