The Rithmatist, by Brandon Sanderson

When The Rithmatist, by Brandon Sanderson (Tor Teen, 2013) was nominated for the Cybils in Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction,  I looked at the suggested age ranges for the book at all the various sources (Kirkus, for instance, says 10-13, SLJ says grades 6-10; its publisher says Young Adult), read reviews, talked to people who had read it, and considered the fact that it was shelved in most libraries in the YA section... and sent it over YA Spec. Fic.  It got sent back, at which point is was clear that I had to read it myself (which was fine with me--it sounded rather good, and indeed I found it so).

It is a magical school story, set at an institution for higher learning in which a gifted few study the two-dimensional geometric magic of chalk drawings (Rithmatism), and everyone else doesn't.   The main character, sixteen-year old Josh, is one of the ungifted later.  He's a charity kid (his mother's on the cleaning staff), and for him, the chalk is just chalk--his lines have no preternatural force, and his drawings never become squiggling, attacking chalkling creatures.  But still he wants to learn all he can about the history and theory of the Rithmatists, and he's determined not to let their snobbish exclusivity thwart him.  It's very good school stuff, with lots of actual learning, reading books, doing badly in uninteresting courses and getting lectured about what the point of studying really is, combined with interesting personal dynamics between Josh, one of the professors, and Melody, a Rithmatist student struggling with basic circle drawing (but darn good at the chalkling creature side of things!).

Of course, if you are not interested in school type stories in which the main character is obsessed by a single subject, and not only that, but a subject which, though magical and really neat (I think), involves a lot of geometry, you might find the first part of the book boring.  However, things pick up with a vengeance.

We learn more about the alternate Earth in which the story is set--one in which the Aztecs sailed to a Europe conquered by an Asian empire, and in which the European colonists of the United Islands (instead of States) found wild and savage chalklings, basically two dimensional killing machines, lurking in the wilderness.*  And in this alternate world, there is a zesty little element of steampunkness, for those who like their clockwork contraptions.

And, in the second half, we get nicely into the meat of the plot.  The peace of the school has been shattered by the disappearance of some of the Rithmatist students; foul play involving Rithmatism is suspected, and Joel and Melody find themselves embroiled in a very dark, dangerous, and magically fascinating mystery! 

I liked it lots, and will look forward to the next book!

And I agree with Kirkus--10-13 years old is pretty spot on.  There's no romance, no distressingly detailed violence, and the central focus is on the external story, not the emotions of the main characters.  Even though Josh and Melody are solidly teenagers, as written, they could pass as twelve.  On top of that, the little guides to Rithmatism, sprinkled throughout, include drawings of chalklings that will have 10-year-olds reaching for their own chalk so they can play too.

So, since three of the years from 10-13 are Middle Grade, and only one is YA, The Rithmatist is back where it was originally nominated, in Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction.

*Although I liked the book, I was disturbed by replacement of Native North Americans by Wild Chalklings.  The world is alternate enough (North America being a bunch of islands, and the Aztec equivalent people being the great seafarers, etc.) that I could have lived with it, if Sanderson hadn't decided to incorporate an actual incidence of a bloody episode in 17th century New England (from the captivity narrative of Mary Rolandson) into his worldbuilding.  He describes a colonial encounter with bloodthirsty Chalklings by replacing the Native Americans involved with Chalklings, and explains that he does this in an author's note, so that even if you missed it while reading, you can't escape the fact that Native Americans are being equated them with monstrous and inhuman things. 


  1. Urkh. Thanks for the warning about the Wild Chalklings -- sounds like it would irritate me very much if I came upon it unawares. The rest of the book sounds interesting. I am in fact a fan of a character being obsessed with one thing very very much, and geometry was one of the math subjects I truly loved in school.

  2. Wow. Brandon strikes again and doesn't disappoint. I can't get over how he's able to think up so many creative alter realities and make them so intelligent with such great character development. The only disappointment is having to wait for the next book!


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