Book Review: “The Rithmatist” by Brandon Sanderson

January 5, 2018

If you are a Harry Potter fan, drop everything right now and read this book. End of book review.

Wait, one more thing. Don’t wiki this book. Wikipedia quotes exactly one review of it which is not only unflattering, it’s downright untrue.

Okay, a few more things. The Rithmatist takes place in a worldscape that its author calls “gearpunk.” In an alternate-reality America where there’s an archipelago instead of a continent, the United Isles of America in the year 1908 has carriages, lamps, and even trains powered not by electricity or steam but by wind-up springs. Even the dollar coins have clockwork in them. Europe has been conquered by the Korean empire. America is, or at least was until recently, a monarchy. A Christian sect called the Monarchist Church is known for practicing a rite called inception, in which some devotees – say, one in 1,000 – develops a kind of magical ability called Rithmatics, which allows them to draw chalk lines and figures that come to life and move about in two dimensions.

Eight schools throughout the country teach Rithmatics to children age eight and older. They’re sort of like Hogwarts, only these schools teach ordinary students as well. The Rithmatists stay to themselves most of the time, except during spectacular displays of dueling, such as the yearly Melees. In exchange for a life pension and special career opportunities, Rithmatists have to spend 10 years in an island at the center of the country called Nebrask, where Rithmatic forces fight to contain horrors most people know nothing about. Among them are the wild chalklings, silent two-dimensional creatures that attack and harm not only other chalk figures but human beings as well.

Joel Saxon, age 16, attends the Armedius academy on a scholarship. His mother works at the academy as a cleaning lady, and his late father was a maker of specialty chalks favored by the Rithmatists. All Joel wants in life is to be a Rithmatist. While his other studies suffer, he obsessively studies every detail of chalk-line defenses and dueling. He is even willing to risk being thrown out of school to learn more, but it is rare for Rithmatists to allow unpowered people to study their secrets.

Joel’s chance finally comes when the brilliant but weak-nerved Professor Fitch is forced to take summer tutoring duties. Fitch accepts Joel’s help as a research assistant while tutoring a hopelessly inept Rithmatics student named Melody Muns. Between doing boring research for Fitch and putting up with Melody’s annoying personality, Joel somehow finds himself in the thick of an investigation into the disappearances, and possible murders, of some young Rithmatists.

That’s enough synopsis. If you haven’t found the thread by now, go find the book and look for it there. I promise you, as implausible as it sounds – and at the beginning, I found it downright goofy – it quickly becomes a fully convincing, immersive world-building experience. I don’t know if it’s the characters who feel real and deliver natural-sounding dialogue, or if it’s the sketches of Rithmatic defenses sandwiched between the chapters, or just the grip of fear and mystery and accelerating action that closes in around you, but by the end of the book you’ll know you’ve found your way into something truly excellent. I can’t wait until the promised sequel comes out.

This is the second Brandon Sanderson novel I have come across, following the marvelous Elantris. I want more. Some of his titles that I am excited about include Steelheart and Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians. Plus, if I ever get far enough through Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, I’ll be reading more Sanderson titles by the end of it, since it was he who wrapped up the series after its creator’s death. I have a lot of homework to do. But mostly, I want a sequel to this book already!

Interested? Buy a copy here.