“The Rithmatist” by Brandon Sanderson (Tor, 2013)

The Rithmatist

To spend a day in the mind of Brandon Sanderson would be a truly awesome adventure. It’s good that he’s such a hard-working writer and brings out multiple books a year, so readers get to enjoy his complex and fascinating story ideas. He does it again in The Rithmatist, creating a unique world, with an incredible magic system, some compelling characters, and a story that quickly becomes a favorite.

This is not the United States you are familiar with; this is a different world. There is the United Isles, consisting of a massive collection of many islands, each named with their own peoples and ways; some names are familiar like Texas, Wyoming and Montana; others are enticingly alien, such as the Californian Archipelago, Crockett, Georgiabama, Canadia, and New France. On a number of these islands are Rithmatic Academies, where Rithmatists train and are taught to become skilled warriors to join the battle, and defend against The Tower on the island of Nebrask. Our story takes place on the island of New Britannia, at the Armedius Academy.

More than anything in his life, Joel would like to be a Rithmatist, but during his inception ceremony, things didn’t go right and he wasn’t given the Rithmatic power. Rithmatists are those who have the power to give life to chalk shapes, and chalk drawings known as chalkings. A Rithmatist’s first line of defense against enemy chalkings is a perfect circle drawn around them which the chalkings will attack, but the more perfect the circle is, the stronger defense the Rithmatist has. If a portion of the circle isn’t perfectly curved, it is a weakness that the chalkings soon tear through it. There are many circles of defense that can be drawn to aid and protect a Rithmatist, named after their creator.

As for chalkings, they can be just about anything the Rithmatist can conceive of: a spearman, a tiger, a unicorn, a monster; the more detailed and complex the chalking is, the stronger it will be. They answer to simple commands, usually movement, a direction, and to attack. And when a Rithmatist is in a duel, which is an important part of training at the academies, it becomes a complicated trial of choosing the right defense that will protect the Rithmatist, but also give him or her a strong offense with chalkings.

The first chalkings began many millennia ago, it is thought from cave drawings, but then there were the wild chalkings, of unknown creation, that attack, harm and kill anyone, be they Rithmatist or ordinary human. The United Isles was a scary place back then, but now these wild chalkings have been kept secured within The Tower, but it’s necessary to have a formidable army of Rithmatists to keep up the defenses to hold these chalkings back. This is the most important role of the Rithmatist.

But getting back to Joel, he isn’t a Rithmatist. He spends his days at the academy, doing his regular classes at a mediocre level and wanting to learn as much about the world of Rithmatists as he possibly can. His father was a chalkmaker who had supposedly discovered a new form of defense, but this information was lost when he died, and whenever Joel asks his mother about it, she ignores him and continues her job of janitor at the academy.

The problem is that students have started disappearing, important Rithmatists from rich families, and nobody knows who is doing it and whether they’re even still alive. A single professor is chosen to solve this mystery, working with the police, and Joel is helping as he’s the professor’s assistant for the summer. This is his chance to learn more about Rithmatics and to hopefully help these kidnapped students.

The Rithmatist is one of those great stories that just sucks you in and never lets go. Together with the unique topography and fascinating magic system in a quasi-steampunk world using steam and other unusual forms to make everything run smoothly. It is a believe world, one in which the reader may be happy to live in, but also fear that distant island of Nebrask where The Tower stands, as the many wild chalkings attack and claw at the weakening defenses, looking to break through and kill everyone.

Originally written on June 12, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.

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