Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Rithmatist: A Review

Brandon Sanderson could easily win a spot in the Top Ten Greatest Fantasy Authors of All Time. That’s why I am kind of ashamed to admit that I never read any of his books. It just seems wrong for someone who claims to be a fantasy aficionado to have ignored such an esteemed author!

The good news is that I no longer need to feel guilty about it. I recently finished reading The Rithmatist, which I selected as the Teen Book Club’s book for March 2016. First published in 2013, it is Sanderson’s debut into the wild world of YA literature.

The protagonist of the story is Joel, a 16 year old who is fascinated by Rithmatics, a calculated magic based on geometry, and the Rithmatists who channel it through chalk by drawing one of four known Rithmatic Lines, each of which have special powers. Needless to say, it’s a pretty unique system of magic—much different from the sparkly, wizardy stuff that typically comes to mind. Joel attends Armedius Academy on scholarship and desperately desires to be a Rithmatist. However, Rithmatists are chosen by The Master (a.k.a. God) when they are 8 years old, and Joel’s opportunity was impeded by a familial tragedy. He thus applies himself half-heartedly to his studies, thinking his true calling and passion are beyond his grasp.

During summer vacation, Joel gets the chance to study—but not practice—Rithmatics with the timid, yet brilliant Professor Fitch. Here he meets Fitch’s remedial tutee Melody, a spunky Rithmatist of little aptitude on the brink of expulsion. Yes, it’s the common YA trope:  boy meets girl, and a friendship blossoms despite their initial mutual dislike of each other. I liked seeing Joel and Melody’s friendship grow throughout the book. It felt natural, and I really respect Sanderson for resisting the temptation to make their relationship romantic. That happens too often and too quickly in a lot of YA books, so this was a refreshing change of pace. Of course, I wouldn’t be opposed to this possibility in future installments… 

Anyway… Young Rithmatists begin disappearing; Fitch, Joel, and Melody find themselves in the middle of the investigation. All that’s left at the crime scenes are the chalky remnants of Rithmatic duels and trace amounts of blood—evidence that the students were ambushed and forced to defend themselves. Were they kidnapped? Or worse? Strange chalk drawings near the crime scenes provide another puzzle for our heroes: could there be undiscovered Rithmatic Lines, and if so…what do they do?

I found the investigation aspect of the plot to be so-so. Obviously, there needs to be speculation for this type of story to work, but I felt like the characters (and thus readers) weren’t given a lot of new information over the course of the investigation. They(/I) continued to have the same questions, without really being given much new information as events transpired. The plot could also have benefited from a bit more excitement, as there was little to no action until the climax.

That being said, this is the first time a mystery novel successfully pulled off a bait-and-switch on me. Seriously. Sanderson led me to the wrong conclusion, tricked me into thinking I was correct, pulled the rug out from under my feet, and made me kick myself for not seeing the truth all along. If that’s not what a mystery book is supposed to do, then I clearly don’t know anything about the mystery genre.

Overall, I thought The Rithmatist was delightful. Honestly, I didn’t even talk about half of all the things I found compelling about it in this review. With a mild steampunk flair and clever hints at what I can only describe as a “post-dystopian” setting, The Rithmatist is an entertaining fantasy-mystery hybrid. I am eager to learn more about the characters and the world in the promised sequel, which is anticipated to be released in 2017.

Uh oh… Now that I have read a bit of Sanderson’s work and enjoyed it so much, I can feel that guilt creeping back into my mind. I better get to work on one of his other series, stat!


The Teen Book Club meets the first Saturday of the month at the Mentor-on-the-Lake Branch of the library. Attendees must be in grades 9-12 and can pick up the monthly books at the library.

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