My rating: 5 of 5 stars
My first exposure to Brandon Sanderson, unlike other adult readers of fantasy who started with his books for adults like the Mistborn trilogy, was Steelheart. And I absolutely adored it! And in this book, like in Steelheart, Sanderson has crafted an incredibly well thought out speculative world that immediately drew me in. Having now read these two, I will make time in my busy book reading schedule to move on to his adult offerings, as I am a firm fan of him as an author at this point.
So, the Rithmatist. The speculative world of this book is one that resembles ours in some ways. The main character lives not in the United States, but in the United Isles, as the land mass that in our world is a continent is instead an extensive archipelago in this world. And much like our own reality, the United Isles was colonized by europeans. But that’s where many of the similarities end. Names, while sounding familiar (Nebrask, New Brittania, East Carolina, Floridia), are just different enough to denote that this isn’t Kansas anymore. Joel, our main character, is attending the Armedius Academy in New Brittania, an elite school that trains Rithmatists to fight on the front lines in Nebrask. And Joel is obsessed with Rithmatists, despite having missed his chance to become one 8 years earlier due to the untimely death of his father. So what is a rithmatist, and who/what are they fighting in Nebrask? Rithmatists are people imbued with the power to make their chalk drawings come alive, using special lines to create linear barriers (lines of forbiddence), circles of protection (lines of warding), projectiles (lines of vigor), and even living, two-dimensional creatures (chalklings). It is unclear how Rithmatism came about, but the why is very clear. Nebrask is full of wild chalklings, creatures that will swarm a human, rip apart his or her skin, and gouge out their eyes and leave them for dead, and they are only being contained by the constant vigilance of the Rithmatist army fighting on the front lines.
I loved Joel as a character, because he was so much like so many people I know. He is completely obsessed with one thing, Rithmatics, and in that area excels, despite being told that he can never be a Rithmatist, and in other areas he’s kind of a slacker. If he’s bored with a class he fails to turn in assignments. He doesn’t show his work on his math tests and gets accused of cheating because the math is too easy for him. In short, he’s just like a lot of other gifted but under-challenged kids. When Rithmatist students on the campus start disappearing, however, Joel gets to put his obsession to good use, trying to unravel the mystery of the strange Rithmatist who is kidnapping (and possibly murdering) Rithmatist students before anyone else is taken.
The pacing of the book is tense and never boring. The characters, even the secondary ones, are well-developed, and the mystery at the heart of the story will have you on the edge of your seat the entire time. There is a sort-of love interest, Melody, who is another apathetic student (an unwilling Rithmatist) who gets assigned to work with Joel, but no actual romance develops between them, despite an increasing partnership and mutual respect, but there are hints perhaps of more to come in future books.
All in all, a fabulous beginning to an exciting new series that I will heartily recommend to anyone who enjoys fantasy. I can’t wait for the next book!