The Rithmatist. Rithmatist Book 1. by Brandon Sanderson. Illustrations by Ben McSweeney.
This book is described by the author as a “gearpunk fantasy” – meaning similar in spirit to steampunk, but a world where everything is operated by a combination of gears and magic. The United States is the United Isles, a large archipelago (I spent a long time reading the names of all the islands.) The magic, rithmatics, is based around geometric designs drawn in chalk with a strong dose of tactics – often things like circles, but also small two-dimensional chalk creatures that can crawl along the ground and attack other designs or even people. In the preface, we meet a young rithmatics student who is unexpectedly waging a losing solo battle against a horde of invading wild chalklings. But the main story is about Joel, the son of the deceased chalkmaker, who’s been given a scholarship to attend Armedius Academy, where both regular students and rithmatists study. He failed the childhood inception ceremony that would have labeled him a rithmatist, but spends his time sneaking into rithmatics lectures and practicing the designs. As the story opens, several things happen all at once: Joel’s favorite professor, the brilliant but absent-minded Professor Fitch, is defeated in a rithmatic duel by the new and arrogant Professor Nalizar, newly returned from the battles against the wild chalklings in over-run Nebrask. Joel forms a somewhat rocky friendship with Melody Muns, a rithmatics student who draws beautiful unicorns but terrible rithmatic diagrams, and who reminded me strongly of Eilonwy of Prydain. And more and more of the best rithmatics students disappear in the night, with only traces of blood and smudges chalk designs to show for it. Joel starts working officially with Professor Fitch on investigation-related research and unofficially with the federal inspector who comes to investigate the disappearances.
I’d read good things about this book on many blogs I love, including the Book Smugglers (they also have an interview with Sanderson.) Just recently, I recommended it to a retired colleague who came in looking for books. She asked me if it was bloody. I looked at the flap information, which does indeed make it sound bloody. It wasn’t. Yes, there are students disappearing – and I’m very sensitive to horrible things being done to innocent children in the name of making protagonists Do Something or Feel Something – but this didn’t set off any alarm bells. The disappearances are only mildly violent, and we only see part of the one in the prologue. This feels like it’s set in about the 1910s, and the book felt delightfully restrained and old-fashioned even as it stayed very exciting. Melody and Joel go out for ice cream together, and that’s the extent of the romantic side of the story. Melody felt a little shallow and maybe too reliant on orchestrating scenes to get her way, but Joel was a very engaging character. I really liked that he wasn’t a gifted rithmatist himself, and how he and Melody worked together to solve the mystery. The true identity of the villain was only partially clear to me, and there were some nicely unexpected plot twists. The world-building was fantastic, with its very original magic system and related religion, the geography, the educational system, even the barely-relevant government system featuring knight-senators. Since it’s exciting without being super-violent or sexual, it would work well for older middle grade students as well as the teens it’s being marketed to, and you already know that I’m recommending it to adult fantasy and steampunk readers. What are you waiting for? Go find a copy! And if you’ve read it already, let me know what you think!