Armedius Academy is the most renowned school in the American Isles, but it is more than a typical school. Armedius is a boarding school for the privileged, but more importantly, it is also a training ground for Rithmatists, an elite warrior-class with the ability to turn lines into magical shields and give life to two-dimensional chalk drawings known as chalklings. Only a select few are chosen to become a Rithmatist, and all of the chosen are meant to be soldiers in the war against the wild chalklings of Nebrask - uncontrollable creatures that tirelessly ravage and mangle any person in their path. Only the Rithmatists have the strength to fight them, and 16-year-old Joel wants nothing more than to become one. The only problem is that Joel wasn’t chosen, and he has no Rithmatic power.
Joel is just a regular student. He is the son of a lowly chalkmaker, only allowed to attend the school as a favor to his deceased father. Joel is incredibly bright and observational, but he is not allowed to formally study Rithmatics. Even if he could, he would never be able to give life to his lines. Like his non-Rithmatist father before him, Joel is obsessed with the idea of Rithmatics. He knows all of the circular defenses, the bind points, the lines of vigor and forbiddance, and he can draw them with depth and precision beyond that of most Rithmatic students his age. Unfortunately, all of that means nothing, especially now that Professor Fitch has been defeated in a Rithmatist duel to Nalizar, a menacing new teacher with radical ideas about Rithmatics. Fitch was kindly towards Joel, often allowing him to sit in on lectures, and Joel held on to the hope that Fitch would help him study to be a Rithmatic scholar. Losing the duel means that Fitch loses his tenure and position to the new-comer, and Nalizar would never allow a non-Rithmatist to study Rithmatics! Opportunity arises from tragedy, however, when Armedius students begin disappearing, leaving strange rithmatic lines and trails of blood in their wake. When Fitch, who now has lots of time on his hands, is given the task of investigating the incidents, Joel earns the opportunity to be his assistant, opening a new world of possibilities.
Brandon Sanderson is one of today’s most revered fantasy writers, but The Rithmatist is his first attempt at writing for a YA audience – and it is a good one. Initially, though, the concept of the novel is a bit overwhelming and unfamiliar. Rithmatics, the magical elements of the novel, are seeded in geometry, so the writer has to give a number of in-depth explanations. Sanderson is very thorough and does a nice job incorporating the explanations into the storytelling, though. Each chapter of the book also opens with a descriptive diagram to ensure that by the time the story reaches its point of attack, the reader has enough information to dissect what is going on. Unfortunately, this can sometimes feel like a lecture, and casual readers or readers not willing to fully engage themselves in the world may shy away within the first half.
The world of The Rithmatist is a Victorian-styled America in which the country is actually a series of islands with familiar names like Georgiabama, New Britannia, and the infamously dark territory of Nebrask. Nearly the entire story takes place on the campus of Armedius, however, and the wonders of the world are only experienced for the first time as they are experienced by the main protagonist, Joel, who rarely leaves the campus. Actually, most of the world outside of Armedius is only alluded to in dialogue. Sanderson also incorporates a number of steampunk elements into the work, including springwork trains and metal horses. The concept fits the Victorian style and dialogue, but the steampunk elements are very minor. Since Sanderson is introducing the readers into a world of alternate history and steampunk, along with magical chalk-wielding warriors, it’s probably best that the work doesn’t spend a lot of time elaborating on those details. Hopefully, the writer will return to these elements in the proposed sequels, but The Rithmatist actually has very concise storytelling – after spending much of the first half of the book getting the reader accustomed to Rithmatic jargon, that is. Once the plot actually begins to form, the novel quickly turns into a legitimate mystery, complete with puzzles, plot-twists, and a sense of urgency. It becomes quite enthralling, even for an adult reader, but still maintains the feel of a teen adventure.
I like that the main protagonist, Joel, is immersed into a magical world where he is oft considered an outsider because he is able to play off his strengths while using his weaknesses as motivation. The main female protagonist, Melody, is an actual Rithmatist, but unlike Joel, she has little talent at drawing the lines. When Melody is introduced, the writer could have easily turned Joel’s motivation into affection, but Joel and Melody stay true to their characters by complementing each other without taking the romantic path. Combined with the wizened, old professor, Fitch, the three make for an interesting team. Each are maladjusted to each other, but in a way that works to their advantage. Part of the book’s appeal is actually giving voices to these characters! Sanderson does such a great job with the dialogue and character interactions that their voices and inflections easily come to mind. Some of the characterization, however, feels a bit forced because it relies on Joel’s disposition. The writer really wants to push the reader into feeling certain ways about characters in order to push his plot devices. For a mystery, it’s a weakness that strong readers will see through but one that younger readers may actually adhere to.
Sadly, the book is going to find it tough to avoid comparisons to Harry Potter, since it is about a magical school. That’s just how the post-Hogwarts world we live in is going to be. I do consider Melody to be an anti-Hermione, and the handling of Nalizar does seem to juxtapose that of Severus Snape, but the world, its characters, and its devices are still different enough to forgive any similarities. The Rithmatist is its own book and a quality YA entry. Casual readers and readers not willing to fully engage themselves into the complex nature of Sanderson’s world may shy away from the tedious first half of the novel, but those willing to see the journey to its end will be rewarded with a quality fantasy-mystery. Even I had reservations at first, but by the end, I was very engrossed and looking forward to the sequels. I would especially recommend this book for teenage guys that like fantasy adventures, but the book is simple enough for middle-grade readers with sufficient reading comprehension skills.