I don’t understand Brandon Sanderson. Seriously. Most fantasy authors are lucky if they come up with one new fascinating and intricate fantasy setting. Most fantasy authors are lucky to come up with a single complex magic system (or unlucky depending on your view). Except Brandon Sanderson isn’t most fantasy authors. It seems likely that he has somehow tapped into some mystical wellfont of fantasy ideas. Of course that doesn’t even mention the fact that he seems to produce material at a seemingly inhuman rate. Since Elantris‘ release in 2005 (and up to and including The Rithmatist) Sanderson has released somewhere around 16 novels (and at least 2 novellas), 3 of which completed Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time (he has at least one more novel due this year, Steelheart in September). A Feast For Crows was published in 2005 so in that same time period George R. R. Martin has released one book: A Dance with Dragons. I’m not sure it’s a fair comparison but it’s still impressive to say the least.
Enter, The Rithmatist, Brandon Sanderson’s latest novel a fantasy geared towards the young adult market but with equal appeal for fantasy and Sanderson fans of all ages. Joel is the son of a chalkmaker and cleaning woman who attends the prestigious Armedius Academy an institution renowned as both a place of learning and for the teaching of Rithmatists. Rithmatists have the ability to work magic through chalk drawings. Both the through the crafting of circles and attacks during duels and in the defense of the American Isles against mysterious wild chalklings. While Joel is utterly fascinated by the workings of Rithmatics he lacks the ability to work it himself; a fact that won’t keep him from trying his hardest to find a professor that will teach him. Joel’s life is complicated further as Rithmatic students begin disappearing from their homes and Joel finds himself assisting the Rathmatic professor tasked with aiding the investigation.
While reading The Rithmatist I was struck by its similarities to Jim Butchers Codex Alera books, if not in setting and plot than at least with its competent protagonist who lacks the ability to work magic. It is there the similarities end at least and Joel, while certain competent and enthusiastic, has many flaws and Sanderson does a wonderful job of conveying his youth through his action. He is very much the know-it-all teen and his youthful arrogance provides both opportunity and copious amounts of trouble over the course of the novel.
Sanderson has crafted a fascinating and mysterious world in the American Isles and, much to my infinite frustration, leaves them almost entirely unexplored. The review copy given to me by Tor has a gorgeous map on the inside cover detailing a splintered map of America. It has always been my opinion that maps are an essential part of a fantasy novel; just as important as the back cover in attracting readers to whatever lays between the covers. The Rithmatist has the type of map that I would flip open and immediately want to know more about the geography detailed there. The YA market is always a little lighter on the world building and Sanderson drops some juicy little hints about the world beyond Armedius Academy that my desire to know more is nigh on ravenous.
While Sanderson may have left me maddeningly unfulfilled when it comes to knowledge about the larger world of The Rithmatist it isn’t something I really noticed while reading the book. The mystery (or mysteries depending on how your look at it) in The Rithmatist is quite engaging and the constant forward momentum enforced by the competent and energetic Joel constant keeps readers engaged with the action. With the novel solidly focused on the action Sanderson still manages to convey a sense of personal history to the story not only through tying Joel’s past directly into the novel’s story but through using Joel as lens through which the world larger social problems are glimpsed.
In addition to once again crafting a complex system of working magic it is one whose reliance on art is ably conveyed by illustrator Ben McSweeny (who also worked on art for The Way of Kings). The complex defensive circles and Rithmatic theory discussed in the novel is almost always accompanied by an easy to understand illustration. The Rithmatist is an exciting new read that fans of fantasy with a bit of urban or historical twist are going to enjoy. Sanderson has once again crafted a new and fascinating world in which he can play and I for one am excited to see where the world of The Rithmatist goes next.