I had a different book planned for this week’s Down the Stacks, but as I sat down to write the review I decided I need to read more of the series before trying to comment on it. Instead, I’m once again turning to my favorite author, Brandon Sanderson, for material. This week’s Down the Stacks is the first and currently only entry in Sanderson’s newest young adult series: The Rithmatist.
The Rithmatist takes place outside the shared universe that Warbreaker and The Emperor's Soul exist in, but the book still contains Sanderson’s trademark magic and implied cosmic scope. The Rithamtist’s world is a clockpunk alternate Earth at the turn of the 20th century where the prevalence of clockwork-based technology and the existence of magic aren’t even the biggest differences. History and culture have taken different courses thanks to an empire that rose out of Korea and conquered its way across all of Asia and Europe, driving England's monarchy into exile in the United Isles of America. There we have the biggest deviation from our normal: for some reason not yet revealed, North America exists not as a whole continent but as an archipelago of state-sized islands arranged roughly in the shape of North America. All the islands are inhabited except for the central-most, called Nebrask, which is a massive war zone between the Rithmatists and the vicious, flesh-rending wild chalklings.
Rithmatists are a chosen people, in the most literal sense. The Monarchial Church - a religion that mixes elements of Catholicism and Mormonism with clockwork motifs - holds an annual coming of age ceremony for all children aged eight during which, through means the chosen remain close-lipped about, a few are granted the ability to create magic effects with chalk and geometry. Rithmatics is subject to a great deal of study due to its reliance on mathematic principles and its importance to the continued survival of the Americas and possibly the world. At the same time, however, it’s obvious that the magic is not actually that well understood yet, since the Rithmatics taught in school is all based around variations on four basic “lines” and some supplementary glyphs. The four “lines” are circles, which provide limited protection to whatever’s inside and serve as the anchor point for complex line arrays, straight lines which create impassible, immutable force fields, sine waves which move forward and attack any other chalk lines they encounter, and “lines of making,” or Chalkings, which are drawings animated by the Rithmatist and given behavioral instructions using the supplementary glyphs.
The main character of The Rithmatist is not actually a Rithmatist himself, much to his perpetual frustration. Joel Saxon is a resident student of Armedius Academy, one of the few prestigious schools that have dedicated courses for young Rithmatists, on a scholarship extended to him by Armedius’s principal out of respect for Joel’s late father, who had been Armedius’s resident chalkmaker (a humble but crucial job in a world where magic operates through chalk drawings) until his untimely death in a train accident eight years ago. Joel’s father was not a Rithmatist either, but he was a bit of an armchair Rithmatic theorist and Joel has inherited that fascination with Rithmatics to the point that he can draw perfect Rithmatic lines (the geomtric ones at least) and understands the mechanics behind them better than most of his peers. Joel’s obsession with Rithmatics leads him to undertake an unnecessarily convoluted plan to get assigned as a research assistant to Professor Fitch, a Rithmatist teacher who excels at theory but is too nervous to duel others well. When Fitch is assigned to assist the police in investigating a rash of kidnappings aimed at Rithmatist students, Joel is permitted to tag along and help as well.
Joel’s association with Professor Fitch also brings him into contact with a fellow student: Melody Muns. Melody is a Rithmatist with an artistic gift that lets her make exceptionally strong and complex Chalklings yet is utterly abysmal at the other three, geometry-based Lines. Melody is placed under Fitch’s tutelage for a remedial course in Rithmatic Lines, which she takes to with much grouchiness, particularly because she does not want to be a Rithmatist. Melody has a strong, imposing personality and a sharp tongue that Joel finds annoying, but the two end up becoming friends by virtue of proximity and Melody’s determination to get up in Joel’s business.
The Rithmatist has a thematic feel similar to Harry Potter: the main setting is a school of magic, the protagonists are students, a mystery abounds which threatens to close the school down, and even a teacher character who gives off vibes similar to a certain Potions professor. Of course, Brandon Sanderson’s style of world building and creating unique systems of magic makes the story stand quite apart from Harry Potter. The Rithmatist is a notable departure from the style Sanderson applies to his Cosmere universe - the meta-setting of Warbreaker, The Emperor’s Soul, and the majority of Sanderson’s books; the scale of the conflict within the book is significantly smaller than usual, and even the larger conflict of the ongoing fight to contain the wild Chalklings on the Isle of Nebrask, which is clearly going to drive the series as a whole, does not seem to have as grand a scope as the Cosmere’s meta-narrative. That is a can of worms one must open with much caution. The characters don’t quite fit into the roles Sanderson usually employs, but they do fit well within their corner of this clockwork-driven, yet not wholly unfamiliar Earth.
If you’re looking for an introduction to Brandon Sanderson that doesn’t come with the lure of the fascinating but deep Cosmere, then pick up The Rithmatist.