The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson with illustrations by Ben McSweeney (book review).

In ‘The Rithmatist’ by Brandon Sanderson, sixteen year-old Joel Saxon is a student at the prestigious Armedius Academy nursing a secret ambition to become a ‘Rithmatist’, the defenders of the country from the wild chalklings of Nebrask. The only problem is he can never be one. The Rithmatists gain their power, the ability to attack and defend with chalk designs, during an inception ceremony when they are eight years-old, a ceremony Joel missed because of a family tragedy.

But even without their power, he learns as much as he can about Rithmatist method and history until his knowledge is on a par with many of the Rithmatist students living on campus. Then, as Rithmatists are attacked by a mysterious enemy, he is drawn into the investigation, assisting the Rithmatist Professor Fitch and the former soldier, Inspector Harding. At first, he believes he is safe precisely because he is not a Rithmatist, but it is an assumption that is soon proven to be false.

The background behind the threat of the wild chalklings of Nebrask and the purpose of the Rithmatists is one steeped in mystery. No-one knows or at least isn’t saying where the chalklings come from or who made them and why. They are simply the threat which the Rithmatists must keep at bay lest they escape to other lands and start eating people. There is a peppering of Aztec folklore and the referral to something called ‘The Shadowblaze’, a living stick figure that originated in Nebrask and bonds itself to the chosen Rithmatist during the religious inception ceremony. It is heavily inferred the shadowblaze is the source of rithmatic power but how it was discovered and why it bonds itself to human beings is not explained, remaining a mystery like many of the creatures that inhabit Nebrask. Part of the enjoyment of this book is Joel’s speculation about these mysteries added to the reader’s own. The reader and protagonist are joined in their need to understand.

This is why this is probably my favourite Brandon Sanderson novel, having the advantage of a main character that is easy to identify and sympathise with. The reader follows only Joel’s experience in third person, the world around him gradually brought to life in a combination of comments rather than detailed explanation. From it we learn that this is an alternative Earth where Europe was conquered by Asia and The United ‘Isles’ of America is actually a series of islands rather than states. Technology is based on ‘spring power’ where everything requires winding, including trains, as well as the sophisticated mounts ridden by police officers.

Joel himself is instantly likeable. His initial enthusiasm in all things Rithmatic is infectious as he explains historic duels to a friend who couldn’t care less. Joel’s place as someone intelligent but poor makes us root for him as does his humanity. He is not cruel nor does he hate anyone, despite his circumstances and the way the richer students shrug him off almost as an afterthought. As the novel progresses, he forms a strong relationship with Professor Fitch, who comes to respect Joel’s intelligence and tenacity. Fitch is initially presented as the stereotypical doddery professor but this is a blind. In fact, he is waging his own internal battle against cowardice which he eventually overcomes.

Then there is Melody, a girl Joel’s age who doesn’t want to be a Rithmatist and is the flipside of Joel. She had no choice but to be one while he had no choice not to be. Her Rithmatic knowledge and skills are poor and, over time, she comes to respect Joel’s knowledge as he helps her come to understand where her strengths lie and how she can build on them. Melody is emotional, dramatic and an outcast in Rithmatic circles just as Joel is in the non-Rithmatic ones. There is no hint of a romance between the two, which is perhaps a little odd considering their ages, but it’s not needed. Joel and Melody’s relationship is more akin to a friendship which grows stronger and more solid over time, so there is the promise it is leading somewhere but there is absolutely no rush to get there. That in itself is refreshing.

There are a number of other supporting characters that give flesh to the world of Armedius. Joel’s hardworking mother giving her all for her son, the memory of his dead father who inspired Joel’s love of the rithmatic. The paternal Principal York, the sibling-like-double act of clerks Florence and Exton. The determined Inspector Harding and the upstart Professor Nalizar who Joel and, by extension the reader, hates almost on sight.

Inspector Harding is the man investigating the disappearances and is presented at once as a man who wants to do his job regardless of politics and who is gracious to Fitch and Joel. Respecting their abilities, as he pushes forward with his investigation into ‘the scribbler’, the supposed rebel Rithmatist who is using his powers to kidnap rithmatic students, sometimes leaving the bodies of civilians in his wake.

Professor Nalizar is initially the villain and the subject of Joel’s ire even before the scribbler makes an entrance. Nalizar is arrogant, unpleasant and treats Joel unkindly because he is not a Rithmatist, that is, when he can be bothered to notice Joel is actually there. Nalizar is also a hero of Nebrask and is high in Melody’s estimation because he attempted to rescue her brother at risk to his own life. He didn’t succeed and part of the reason for his return from Nebrask is that very failure. At various points, Joel suspects Nalizar is the scribbler and it would be giving away the ending if I told you he was or he wasn’t. The truth is actually more complex and Nalizar is a far more interesting character than he at first appears.

I should make clear this is nothing like Harry Potter, despite some superficial similarities of ‘wizard school’. Joel is not famous, nor does he have a special destiny or even any powers. All he has is his wits, determination and intelligence. He wants to be something he is not and when that is denied to him he finds another way. The building up of Joel and the world around him works perfectly with the enveloping mystery of the kidnappings and the growing sense of danger that eventually materialises to threaten Joel and confirm his importance as a danger to the dark forces of Nebrask. This is a book that is incredibly easy to read with an ending that is more than satisfying and leaves the reader wanting for more.

Whether Mr Sanderson ever writes a sequel, there is no way of knowing. It’s been on the cards for a while now but has failed to appear. I myself would be happy to read it, but as a standalone story I would happily recommend ‘The Rithmatist’ to anyone. The conclusion, though sudden, is of Joel’s defiance to his enemies and the promise that this defiance will continue. In the end perhaps that is conclusion enough.

GD Tinnams

July 2020

(pub: TOR/Forge, 2013. 304 page illustratred hardback. Price: $17.99 (US), $19.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-2023-2)

check out websites: www.tor-forge.com, www.brandonsanderson.com and www.inkthinker.net

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