Friday, April 5, 2013

Book Review: The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson

I was excited to get my hands on an ARC for Brandon Sanderson's upcoming YA novel: The Rithmatist. I should note, for the purpose of full disclosure, that I am a HUGE Sanderson fan. Will that introduce a level of bias on my part? Likely. I had picked this up with huge expectations and I must admit, I was not let down. I'll hit on what I liked, didn't like, and do my best to avoid spoilers.

Plot (taken from the book description)


More than anything, Joel wants to be a Rithmatist. Chosen by the Master in a mysterious inception ceremony, Rithmatists have the power to infuse life into two-dimensional figures known as Chalklings. Rithmatists are humanity’s only defense against the Wild Chalklings—merciless creatures that leave mangled corpses in their wake. Having nearly overrun the territory of Nebrask, the Wild Chalklings now threaten all of the American Isles.

As the son of a lowly chalkmaker at Armedius Academy, Joel can only watch as Rithmatist students study the magical art that he would do anything to practice. Then students start disappearing—kidnapped from their rooms at night, leaving trails of blood. Assigned to help the professor who is investigating the crimes, Joel and his friend Melody find themselves on the trail of an unexpected discovery—one that will change Rithmatics—and their world—forever.

What I Liked


Oh, boy. Where to begin?

1) Characters. I really liked the characters. I felt the characters of non-Rithmatist Joel and Rithmatists Melody and Professor Fitch were fantastic. They came to life for me, all having their own distinct personalities. I liked the absent-minded manner that Fitch mentored Joel and I liked the type of relationship that Joel and Melody have. They are complete opposites of each other and I thought Sanderson played with that brilliantly.

2) Setting. Most of this takes place at a school, so this does have a bit of a Harry Potter feel to it. In fact, I think you can draw a lot of similarities, almost like if Harry Potter went to Hogwarts with an interest in magic, but could not perform magic himself. There are more, but I think to delve into that would introduce too many spoilers. For some reason, this really added a level of resonance that made me feel comfortable reading this book.

3) World building. The world building is fantastic! This seems to be our world, with even some familiar historical figures, like Leonardo Da Vinci. However, the landscape is slightly different with America being broken up into a number of islands and such. The United States are named slightly different because of this, for instance he makes reference to a East Carolina and Nebrask, which I imagine is the island of Nebraska.

Because this has the magic system of Rithmatics, which seemed to be introduced in this world about 600 year prior, technology took off in a different direction. There are no engines like we have today, but a huge focus on gear-driven machinery. On the American cover of the book you can see a horse with a bunch of gears sticking out of it, this is how they get around in this version of our world. What fascinated me the most was a train that they took, which was spring-loaded and also seemed to fly over land and over water. It was subtle in the background, but I thought that scene alone really brought this world to life.

A big, though minor to this story, change was the naming and customs of the countries. Apparently, the Aztecs thrived and a common European staple appears to be what we would consider Asian foods. Again, subtle, but added to the history of this world.

4) The Magic System. Brandon Sanderson has been known to come up with amazing magic systems. When I heard he was doing a chalk-drawing book I imagined some kid drawing a dinosaur and suddenly having a new pet. Well, it doesn't happen quite that way. This magic system has certain limitations and capabilities, as every good magic system should. I'll cover how I struggled with the magic system a bit, but in the long run I totally fell in love with it. Reading this book, there appears to be a lot of things yet to be discovered, and I look forward to see what Sanderson does with it in future books.

5) The artwork. This is a book on chalk drawings, so of course this book has a lot of artwork inside of it. There is a form of dueling that is performed with the chalk drawings, which is central to the entire plot, and Ben McSweeney draws several instances of how the chalk drawings work. Also, there are drawings here and there throughout the rest of the text, fleshing out the chalk drawings that Sanderson had depicted in the story.

I loved it.

It really helped me make sense of the chalk-drawing magic system and allowed me to visualize a lot of what was going on in the story. I'm sure there will be an audiobook version of this, but I would suggest picking up the actual book instead for the artwork alone.

And when I say artwork, I don't mean that there are pictures of what happens in the story. All of the artwork--with the possible exception of one picture--is what is drawn with chalk by the Rithmatists. So they aren't high-quality, really. Just informative.

6) The ending. I thought this had a satisfying ending. Sanderson is great at adding twists to the end of his stories, and I didn't see this one coming at all. I loved it. Also, it has one of the best denouements I've ever read. This is a first of a series, so it does leave you wanting more. No cliffhanger, thank goodness, but this is a great setup to a series that I'm sure is only going to get better.

I could not put this book down the last 100 pages, which left me reading until way past my bedtime. I paid for it with sleepiness the next day at work, but it was WORTH IT!

7) Religion. I was fairly surprised what impact Rithmatics plays in religion. I thought Sanderson worked in the topic of religion in this imaginary world quite well. I'm sure future books will delve more into this, but I thought this book did a great job of introcuing the religion and its role over Rithmatists.

What I Didn't Like


1) Length. Only 370 pages? I thought this was a Sanderson novel!! Well, this is one of his shorter works, but it was long enough to tell the story he wanted to. I wouldn't have complained if this were longer and more of the magic system was fleshed out. I guess we'll get that in future books.

2) The Secret Societies. This seems to be a world where Rithmatists are supposed to keep secrets to themselves, and they even have a secret section of the library. So, there is a lot of mystery, but I just didn't buy it. It seems that if a character befriended the right person who was willing to talk they could find out all they wanted to about Rithmatists. Also, you can check out the books in the secret section, which means borrowing the books from Rithmatic friends isn't difficult. Well, for me, it seemed that anybody could figure out anything they wanted if they were willing to spend a little initiative trying to figure it out.

3) The learning curve. For some reason, I struggled understanding how Rithmatic dueling worked. I had an easier time understanding Allomancy in Sanderson's Mistborn series. I stopped reading about a third of the way through and tried to see if I was missing a frame of reference or something. Best I can tell, this is a very unique magic system, so I just continued with the book.

I'm not sure where I felt comfortable with the magic system, but in time it finally did click. This might just be me and a personal hangup. But if you are reading this and having problems grasping the magic system, hang in there. It seems to come together well enough.

Conclusion


I loved this book and can't wait for more to be written. It isn't perfect, but what book is? So, I'm giving it a 4 1/2 out of 5 stars (round it up to 5). Like I mentioned, this is the ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) and I noticed a few mistakes throughout. When this book is released I'm looking forward to picking up another copy and reading it again... with the typos fixed, keeping an eye on the twist, and with a better understanding of Rithmatics throughout the book.

If you love urban fantasies with unique magic systems, this is right up your ally! If you, like me, love Brandon Sanderson, then I don't think you'll be disappointed in this book.