‘The Rithmatist’ is a fun YA fantasy adventure with a clever Sanderson magic system and a protagonist you want to root for. It’s a great stepup novel from middle grade adventure stories, retaining the fast pacing and readability but offering more complexity with the magic and nuance. The protagonist is sixteen but reads young, so this would easily appeal to those from around 10-12 up depending on reading age.
Joel’s one desire is to be a Rithmatist: someone who can infuse life into chalk figures, known as Chalklings, and defend the American Isles from Wild Chalkling enemies. Unfortunately, he’s only the son of a chalkmaker, and must watch as other students learn th art he would do anything to practice. However, when students start disappearing, Joel finds himelf assigned to help the Rithmatic professor investigating the appearance. Together, Along with fellow student Melody, he finds himself on the trail of a discovery that could change Rithmatics forever.
Joel is an instantly relatable character. In his world, magic is a real and tangible thing – but he isn’t gifted with it, and he longs to be. He obsesses over Rithmatics and those who practice it, neglecting his studies in the process. He’s smart and determined, but can be reckless and doesn’t always see the consequences of his actions. In short, he’s a very accurate depiction of a teenager still figuring things out – but he has a good heart and cares deeply about those close to him.
As with all Sanderson fantasy books, the magic system is simple yet effective, with clear rules and limitations. As the name suggests, its loosely inspired by mathematics in the form of geometry – but no understanding of maths is required to appreciate it. The book explains the magic system partially through illustrations at the start of each chapter, detailing rithmatic designs. These provide a point of reference and avoid long passages of expositionary text that would slow the pace of the story. Its a neatly crafted and fun system that suits the story well.
The plot is a fast-paced adventure with plenty of twists and turns – mostly predictable, but fun all the same. It avoids making things too easy for the protagonist with challenges along the way, and whilst it uses some genre tropes like the worn-down mentor, it feels like a fresh and original story.
The setting is an alternate version of America with steampunk-type elements. Its a little distracting hearing references to recognisable American cities or states put slightly differently, but mostly works at creating a similar-yet-different world. The depth of worldbuilding is the main difference between this and Sanderson’s adult fantasy – this is half the length as the worldbuilding is left shallow, with the plot, characters, and magic doing the talking.
Overall, this is an excellent YA fantasy adventure with crossover appeal to younger audiences looking to step up and older readers just looking for a fun, fast-paced story. Highly recommended.
Published by Tor UK
Paperback: 26th February 2015
For reviews of Sanderson’s adult work, we suggest starting with Elantris or The Final Empire.