I’ve been meaning to read The Rithmatist, by Brandon Sanderson, for a fairly long time now. Recently, I had the chance to listen to the audiobook version, and I took it. 🙂
As usual, Sanderson tells an enchanting tale which blends the realistic and the fantastic, with a unique magic system, a dire, world-threatening evil, and characters which are intriguing and compelling.
A quick explanation of the magic system: called rithmatism, involves using chalk to draw formulaic lines, circles, symbols, and animals, imbuing them with a sort of vitality. The lines become uncrossable, the circles become bases of power, the symbols become tools in an arsenal, and the animals become chalklings, animated chalk-figures capable of moving along the ground to engage with another rithmatist’s forces. That might not seem very dangerous, but when a student graduates from their training, they learn how to make chalklings and such that can affect the three-dimensional world.
Not many people are “chosen” to become rithmatists, and the process of their selection is sacred and secret, involving a religious ceremony when one turn’s eight years old. There is a place called “the Tower,” from which come things called “wild chalklings,” and these are very dangerous creatures. Only the discovery of rithmatism has allowed humans to gain the advantage over them, and for the past two centuries or so, there has been an ongoing stalemate. The humans have been unable to breach the Tower and finish the job, while the wild chalklings have been unable to get free of their confinement. If they get out in such a force that cannot be contained again, it’s basically over for humanity. As evidenced by the intimation that they have already destroyed all the precolonial civilizations of North America, as they nearly wiped out the colonists, and something about that ancient conflict left the continent broken into a massive series of countless isles.
So: rithmatists, important.
Starting with the characters, we have three major protagonists: Joel, Melody, and Professor Fitch.
Joel is not one the mystical rithmatists, but dearly, dearly wishes he were. His father was a most capable mathematician and well-versed in rithmatic theories, but he was also just a humble chalk-maker. He died in a terrible accident, and with such terrible timing that Joel’s “inception ceremony” was botched as a result. He lost the father he loved and admired, and the chance to become a rithmatist. But in the intervening years, he’s become one of the most knowledgeable students of the subject, often rivaling the rithmatists themselves in some areas. That happens when one is a bit obsessed by the subject.
Joel soon meets a counterpart in Melody, a girl with red curls, who is a rithmatist and wishes she were not. For her, rithmatism means she has no choice in the path she takes in life, and she’s such an abysmal student, unable to draw even a basic circle properly, that no one takes her into their social circles. Toss in how she truly knows the importance of a rithmatist being able to perform properly at the battlefront she will be required to go to, and she’s certain good people will die because of her. That’s a heavy weight for anyone, let alone a sixteen-year-old youth.
As for Professor Fitch, he is an elderly man, humble, a scholar, kindly and wise, but not typically confident enough to duel as well as he might. That much is proven later in the novel, when Fitch must defend his students, and he is nothing short of amazing. He has a keen mind, and one which serves well both in his teaching and as he faces the unexpected enemy which threatens his students.
Joel and Melody find themselves accidental classmates when a new professor, Nalazar, enters the academy and duels the well-established Professor Fitch to a duel, defeating the man and taking his tenure, and his class, for himself. Being egotistical and rude, Nalazar thinks nothing of expelling Joel from the rithmatic classes he sat in on under Fitch, and harshly punishing Melody with extra chores and remedial lessons. As Joel hatches a scheme to learn rithmatics anyway, from Fitch, he finds Fitch is the professor tutoring Melody as well.
Rivalry ensues, but so does eventual friendship, particularly as Joel teaches Melody one method of dueling which suits her artistic style and precise control of her chalklings. In just a few moments, he shows her that she is not destined to be a worthless liability.
In fact, Joel proves to be plenty clever and capable, rithmatist or no. When rithmatic students begin disappearing, one Inspector Harding, fresh from an entire career in the Tower’s shadow, comes to ask the academy to assist his investigation. Fitch is assigned the task, and Joel soon becomes his assistant. As they investigate various angles and possibilities, Joel’s insights prove invaluable, such that he even attracts the very attention one wants to avoid: that of the very-dangerous culprit.
In the face of this danger, Melody and Joel form a capable partnership: his knowledge and precision proves most effective when combined with her artistry and rithmatic capabilities, particularly her chalklings. It’s much like the difference in their personalities and backgrounds: his family is poor, so he is much more practical and down to earth, while her family is rich, and her honesty tends to be over-dramatic. They complement each other exceptionally well, and their victories are astounding. Most of all, they prove their worth, and they do it together.
I’m hoping I didn’t spoil quite as much as I fear in that summary. But there’s still more to go! 😉
All in all, I liked this novel.
I enjoyed the characters most of all. How they develop, how they relate to one another, how we didn’t zoom straight to the obvious coupling of Melody and Joel, etc.
I also like the unique magic system and how it’s importance is tied not to what it can do to other people, but directly to the presence of an insidious, deadly enemy. The enemy remains very much a mystery, but we know that the “wild chalklings” are not all the protagonists have to deal with. There are shadow-chalk-things called “Forgotten,” and these seem to be at least part of the intelligence behind the wild chalklings. One intimation is that these Forgotten are such alien beings that time itself is foreign to them. They’re “outsiders” to the very concept of Time.
The damage they’ve done is horrific to contemplate, as they apparently depopulated the North American continent to such a degree that not a trace of the Native Americans remains. We see what wild chalklings can do at the command of a Forgotten, such that they’re practically assimilated into the horde. But it seems some of the Natives who were eaten up managed to retain, or regain, their individual will, and formed a partnership with the Europeans, creating “rithmatism.”
The Church, which worships “the Master,” is heavily involved with the formation of these partnerships between Native ghosts, called shadowblazes, and the living children who become rithmatists. Doubtless, if the public at large knew of this, they’d completely ignore how their safety and security is secured by this strange partnership and try to kill all the rithmatists and their shadowblazes. Also, the Church’s power and influence now greatly depends on their religious monopoly of new rithmatists, so no one in their right mind is going to just reveal a truth which, though harmless in and of itself, could well lead all of human civilization to its doom, when combined with lies and misunderstandings.
Worst of all, there’s only so many shadowblazes to go around. New rithmatists cannot be chosen until older ones are dead. So the overall plot of the enemy Forgotten, in this novel at least, is to devastate the population of students and eventually wipe out the veteran rithmatists all around the Tower, and do so in such a way that new rithmatists cannot arise. If the Forgotten succeed with that, at any point, it spells the doom of the human species.
Those are very, very high stakes, and it all hinges on the quick-witted skills of a normal, non-rithmatist boy from a poor family, the son of a chalk-maker.
I am hoping/eagerly looking forward to an eventual sequel! 🙂
…and I suppose that’s actually the only point I have against it right now.
The gate is left wide open for further novels, particularly in its conclusion, as it basically says, “it’s not over, just yet.” So where’s the next novel, Brandon?
There are some other points against it, to a degree. As I read/listened to this novel, I found myself all but instantaneously solving certain mysteries, but it’s understandable for the characters, who do not have my perspective, to lag behind. This is balanced out by how other parts of the mystery fell into place just before the big reveal, making them surprising but inevitable, which is very good. And the final curve ball is simply: the hero of the story was right the first time, though not quite in the fashion he first thought.
So, minor flaws notwithstanding, I give this story 8 points out of 10, with one of the points lacking only because there isn’t a second novel already to read. 😉
A good, strong B+.