In Brandon Sanderson’s new YA fantasy novel, a teenager named Joel wants nothing more than to become a Rithmatist. Rithmatists have the power to give life to two-dimensional figures called Chalklings. They’re also the only defense humans have against Wild Chalklings, who have recently taken over Nebrask and are threatening to overrun the entire American Isles.
Joel, the son of an ordinary chalkmaker, can only watch from the sidelines as Rithmatist students practice their art. But when students start disappearing, Joel and his friend Melody end up helping with the investigation. This will lead them to a discovery that will change Rithmatics—and their world—forever…
I always thought that Brandon Sanderson and YA would be the perfect match. His writing style has always been incredibly direct, with easy-to-follow plots and uncomplicated characters. The attention he puts into designing and describing his famed magic systems is something that younger readers should immediately respond to, with their sets of reliable rules and possibilities that wouldn’t be out of place in a video game. If you imagine some of his previous novels with the vaguely darkish edges of his worlds toned down, they would almost work as YA as it is.
It was incredibly surprising for me, then, to find that The Rithmatist is possibly his weakest work to date, at least out of the ones I’ve read (Elantris, the original Mistborn trilogy and The Alloy of Law, Warbreaker, The Way of Kings, and his two recent novellas Legion and The Emperor’s Soul. You can find my reviews of the two novellas here and here.).
The Rithmatist’s main character is Joel, the son of a lowly chalkmaker (chalk being the main ingredient in this magic system) who is studying in a Rithmatist school. Joel wants to be a Rithmatist, but he doesn’t have the magic. He’s like an envious, almost obsessed muggle stuck at Hogwarts. The novel starts off with him recounting, in incredible detail, a magical duel from the past, then sneaking into a Rithmatist lecture. He’s surrounded by what he can’t have, a point the novel mentions over and over.
The second main character is equally one-dimensional: a Rithmatist named Melody, who is great at one aspect of the magic (drawing detailed chalklings) but can’t draw lines and circles with enough accuracy and detail to be effective. She’s in many ways the opposite of Joel: she has the magic he wants so badly, but she’s not all that interested in it. She’s rich, he’s poor. She’s also incredibly theatrical, a point the novel mentions over and over until an initially charming quirk becomes annoying.
Joel and Melody are thrown together when they start working with Fitch (your standard distracted Professor, one-dimensional), who is investigating the recent disappearance of a Rithmatist student. Fitch recently lost his tenured position to Nalizar in a duel. Nalizar has strong echoes of Severus Snape and is, unfortunately, also rather one-dimensional in his aggressive abrasiveness.
Unfortunately these four fairly uninteresting characters are all there is to maintain the reader’s attention during the first half of the novel. Most of what happens in this section involves life on the Rithmatist campus: walking around, chatting with friends, classes, and more than anything else, discussing the ins and outs of Rithmatism in detail.
In detail? In excruciating detail. If you ever felt like Sanderson maybe paid a teensy little bit too much attention to his magic systems, you’re in for a surprise here, because he’s outdone himself. As mentioned before, we start off with a detailed recap of a famous Rithmatics duel in the past, which leads straight into a lecture about Rithmatics and then another duel. Unfortunately, neither of the duels are particularly high-tension: they’re mainly an excuse for Sanderson to explain Lines of Warding, Lines of Forbiddance, Lines of Vigor, bind points on magical circles (four point circles, six point circles, nine point circles), and the way all of these are used to construct various magical defenses and attacks in Rithmatism.
I initially thought the artwork for The Rithmatist was a neat touch: each chapter starts off with a diagram-style example of a Rithmatist defense or technique. (You can see an example of this in the excerpt I posted a few months ago.) However, after a few chapters, it starts to feel like you’re reading the manual for a strategy game you’ve never played. The Sumsion Defense. The Osborn Defense. The Easton Defense. The Advanced Easton Defense. On and on and on it goes.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s a neat magic system, and you’ll have a good understanding of it by the time you are done. Still, I probably had a better time reading the manual for the last strategy game I played because it didn’t try to dress up its inner mechanics as a novel and at least I knew that I got to play the damned thing afterwards.
Now, to be fair, the second half of The Rithmatist is better. It becomes clear that those disappearances may be part of something bigger, connected to the ongoing war in Nebrask. We learn about the history of the world. We eventually leave the Rithmatist campus, which is a huge relief. There are magical duels that actually mean something. Joel becomes slightly more interesting.
It all just takes an uncommonly long time to get going, and until then there’s no sense of urgency because we don’t know much about the people who got kidnapped and all everyone ever talks about is Rithmatism. You’re basically stuck with flat characters in a fairly standard YA magic school environment having theoretical conversations about magic.
Sanderson is a great storyteller with interesting ideas, so I expect this series to improve with the next book, especially now we’ve got Rithmatism 101 out of the way and the world and main character have gained some detail. As an opening volume, however, The Rithmatist is disappointing.