open the pages, read the words, savor the magic
Yesterday night I finished reading one of the most amazing young adult fantasy books I’ve ever read (I began on Saturday afternoon, so it took me about 24 hours to finish it), Brandon Sanderson’s The Rithmatist.
I’ve never read anything by Sanderson before but of course I’ve read synopses of his books (and it’s very shocking that I have never read the Mistborn trilogy despite having already marked them To Read in my personal notes way back when I was still working in the bookstore.) But the book drew me in immediately and that was how I knew that this was going to be good. Very good.
The feeling it evoked in me when I opened those first pages was of the same excitement I felt for J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone. Indeed, Sanderson’s world in The Rithmatist holds some similarities to Rowling’s story: it’s set in a school that teaches magic, although they also have regular non-magic students, called The Armedius Academy. The protagonist is a young boy, a student in the academy who is full of potential and curiosity despite not having much for himself. His name is Joel and he’s obsessed with Rithmatics.
And that is what ‘magic’ is called in this world. It’s no coincidence that the name Rithmatics sound rather ‘mathematical’ (like “arithmetic”) – Rithmatics is all about drawing geometric shapes for defense and offense, as well as giving life to chalk figures (called chalklings) so they could attack or defend your turf. If this sounds weird, there’s no need to worry because Sanderson doesn’t leave his readers in the dark with this. Working with illustrator Ben McSweeney, there are illustrations and diagrams of the schemes Rithmatists use when they do ‘magic’. Rithmatists, on the other hand, are a group of people who’ve been chosen by The Master (their Lord) to have the power to do Rithmatics.
Our protagonist Joel wants to be one. Unfortunately, he missed his inception ceremony and has lived all his life as a non-Rithmatist. This doesn’t stop him from studying the theories of Rithmatics, however, and his vast scholarly curiosity for Rithmatics came in handy when suddenly, one by one, the Rithmatists in his school started disppearing. Suspicions of kidnapping – and even murder – arose and Joel has to spend his summer holiday helping the shy and nervous Professor Fitch to find out who the killer is. Meanwhile, there’s this Rithmatist named Melody who doesn’t want to be a Rithmatist and she is not making Joel’s life any easier…
So ‘mathematical’ magic… and chalk figures. I know, I know, they don’t sound very exciting at all. The monsters in this book are not some kind of big, scary Lovecraftian creatures but they are wild chalklings that have to be kept in line by Rithmatists so they wouldn’t eat humans. Initially, I too thought, “Pshaw! What’s so scary about THAT?” My attitude lasted until I read the prologue, where a young Rithmatist was physically devour the humans they can get their two-dimensional bodies on to. Then the horror set in and it was a roller coaster ride until the end.
The great thing about The Rithmatist is that this novel – set in an alternate world where USA is called the United Isles of America and the European continent has been conquered by the JoSeun Empire (Korea? Well, something Asian, for sure…) in a timeline that could’ve been late 19th century or early 20th century – builds up its story meticulously and rewards us with a grand, majestic finale that hits all the right spot. Unlike most young adult books that rely on just one one of these things, The Rithmatist has it all: a mystery that keeps you guessing until the end, thorough world-building with a steampunk flavor, some complicated magical theories (hence, the illustrations and diagrams) and immensely likable characters.
The result is a truly captivating and well-written story that reads like a detective story, that is also a coming-of-age tale. The book takes itself seriously but there’s still a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor here that is guaranteed to put a smile to your face (some come from cultural references to this alternate universe America). It draws a lot on American history so there are sure to be recognizable features in here (the Civil War, early settlers encounters with Native Americans) even if they are put there very subtly by Sanderson.
The author proves to be an experienced writer; the writing seems effortless. There are no awkward sentences or cheesy analogies to be found anywhere. When you read many YA novels that are published today, you will understand why I highlight this point. With so many atrocious writings being published, reading something like this is akin to finding an oasis in the middle of a desert. (To compare and contrast, I now find Stefan Bachman’s The Peculiar is less expertly written than The Rithmatist.)
Perhaps this won’t gain the popularity of the Harry Potter or Percy Jackson series (let’s be honest, wild chalklings are not Dementors or Gorgons) but I wouldn’t want it to be. It stands on its own two feet to entertain young and adult readers alike. It’s one hell of a read, one terrific hell of a good read. If like me, you were once fascinated by Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, you’d love this… and you’ll be wishing the next book (coming in 2015) would come out sooner.