I’m not entirely sure Brandon Sanderson’s first dip into young adult literature should actually be considered young adult. Maybe it’s just because I’m used to the dreck that passes for most YA these days — a high concept world full of lovelorn teenagers, poorly written – but this felt more innocent than I’m used to with YA, and I’m tempted to categorize it as children’s fiction, despite the age of the protagonist (sixteen). Maybe I’ve just grown to associate ‘romance’ and ‘YA’ together, when I shouldn’t. Because this was also a really smart book (I would expect no less from Sanderson), with some beyond intricate worldbuilding and interesting characters. It actually reminds me a little bit of the first Harry Potter book in the way it sets up the world and its characters, although this book is distinctly more pragmatic than HP, less ‘magical’ and entrancing, and more rational and inquisitive in its methods.
The Rithmatist follows Joel, an ordinary teenager who happens to attend a school of ‘magic’, in a world that seems to have diverged from ours about 1,000 years before the story begins. Joel lives in what we know of as America and Canada, but his America and Canada is one nation made up of 60 islands. Who knows what happend to turn North America into islands, but just go with it. In this world, a European king discovered a sort of geometrical math magic called Rithmatics, which basically involves magical chalk drawings and strategy, and used it to found a religion. People who can practice Rithmatics are called Rithmatists, and only 1 in 1000 people have the ability. Joel desperately wants to be a Rithmatist. He knows more about Rithmatics than most of the Rithmatic students at his school, and he definitely has more passion than most of them. But Joel is not a Rithmatist. In fact, he only goes to his fancy school because his father died, and because his father was good friends with the Dean, Joel gets free admission. But weird things start happening, students disappearing, and there seems to be strange new Rithmatic lines in use that no one understands. Because of his love for Rithmatics, and because his favorite professor is helping with the investigation, Joel is drawn in as well.
Brandon Sanderson’s specialty is worldbuilding. He is a master at imagining fully realized fictional worlds with intricate rules of cause and effect, social systems, and cultures. That ability is on full display here. Rithmatics is basically magical geometry, and while I like magic, geometry would not be one of my favorite things in the universe. But Sanderson manages to make it interesting, and by the end you have a solid grasp on how the magic works in the book. And yes, it does sound silly in theory, but in execution, it’s actually pretty nifty. But it’s not just the worldbuilding that Sanderson is good at; he always manages to create characters that I can emotionally connect with as well. I really felt for Joel in his struggles to become a Rithmatist, despite being without the magical gift that would make his talents and knowledge ‘useful’ in the traditional sense. He’s the classic underdog, not only because he can’t be a Rithmatist, but because he’s poor and in a different social strata than the rest of his classmates, and Sanderson avoids making him into a Mary Sue by having him work for his achievements.
The actual plot of this was fun, and it did manage to surprise me in a couple of places, but it was by no means the highlight of the book. I actually think the mystery in this book was more interesting for its implications for future books than it was for this one. (I don't want to spoil too much, but I will say that this is definitely the most American fantasy novel I've ever read -- think native life forms, colonization, magic . . . he even references The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.) Definitely check this out if you are a Sanderson fan, or a fantasy fan. Maybe even if you’re neither and just like a good story. Here one be.