I like Sanderson’s work. I really do. I think his recent books have been some of the best fantasy that I’ve read in many years. However, I’m also a little burnt out. He writes books faster than I can read them, which gets a little bit tiresome.
Another reason for trepidation was my experience with his Alcatraz books. The Alcatraz books are fine. They’re clean and funny, which few books seem able to accomplish both of, and they have an interesting premise. However, the funny feels very middle school (to be fair that is their audience) and the stories are a little puerile.
That combined with the fact that this particular magic system doesn’t intrigue me the way most of his concepts do left me feeling dubious.
I’m not sure if those feelings were misplaced or not. I think it will take more books to tell. I know with this review and the previous one I’m starting to sound like I can’t make up my mind. Let me explain (I won’t even sum up, even if it is too much.)
Rithmatists are people that draw circles and lines and pictures on the ground with chalk. When they do those chalk drawings come to life and move and portray physical properties — most of them are only able to affect other chalk drawings but some lines and symbols can cross over into the 3D world and even kill people.
Joel is a student at a Rithmatics school (that also teaches other things) and he has studied Rithmatics his entire life. However, he is not a Rithmatist, none of his drawings come to life.
Add to that a Rithmatist who doesn’t want to be, an absent-minded professor who takes Joel on as a research assistant and a serial killer murder mystery and you get The Rithmatist — which sounds a lot like every other young adult novel out there.
First of all this is much better than the Alcatraz books. It is less given to the juvenile puns and jokes that Sanderson loves so much and spends most of it’s time setting up mysteries, that Sanderson is uniquely skilled at.
However, the characters all feel like they are stock versions of Harry Potter characters. Our main character is some kind of pariah at a magic school — famous among the staff, if not the students, because of how his father died. He is friends with the headmaster, has an older mentor who everybody else seems to think is a bumbling idiot and a red-headed friend who doesn’t like school or studying. In the middle of that mix Sanderson throws a red-herring professor Snape look-a-like and it feels like a photoshopped version of a stock photo rather than a custom original.
If you can get over the obvious parallels there are a number of mysteries in the world that keep the story itself intriguing enough that it never becomes a chore to read. The mystery plot makes sense and has a surprising outcome but the world itself has some intriguing questions asked (and only a few answered) to keep the story interesting.
The ending reminded me of Elantris. Not that it is like Elantris’s ending but that many of the events seemed to come out of nowhere and things came so fast and heavy that it felt like the famous Brandon Avalanche of his early books.
All those things aside, the characters, while fitting into broad-strokes molds that feel cliche and trite after Rowling popularized them so effectively, are interesting people in their own ways. They have hopes and fears and dreams that feel real.
Sanderson always writes optimistic books. Even when the world is covered in ash and constantly dark, the story is hopeful, looking towards a better future. Characters usually triumph in the end — his books are not usually about if they will succeed but how. After the darkness there will be a light, etc. This trend continues in The Rithmatist. I don’t find this to be a bad thing. Seeing how his characters pull themselves from the darkest depths is at least half the fun of reading one of his books.
With that in mind, The Rithmatist is one of his most optimistic books yet. The triumph at the end is every bit as satisfying even with the other flaws.
This book has everything that I would have loved as a teenager but that I find mildly tiring now. It’s not bad enough to miss if you’re a Sanderson fan, but it’s not good enough to hunt down if you’re interested in trying his books.