The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson
It’s about high time we had a guest review so here’s one right now. Something a bit different today though, Mr Sam Strong has pricked up his ears and has taken a listen to an audio book.
A killer is on the loose . . .
Joel is fascinated by the art of Rithmatics – with its lines of power and ability to bring chalk drawings to life – but only a few have the gift and he is not one of them. When Rithmatic students from Joel’s school start disappearing, he is keen to investigate.
Since he’s not a Rithmatist, Joel seems to be safe – but others are dying. Can he find the killer before the killer realizes just what a threat Joel really is?
The Rithmatist is Brandon Sanderson’s first foray into the world of YA fiction. Perhaps best known for his Mistborn series, Sanderson is a bit of a machine, regularly churning out epic fantasy novels that tend to have incredibly detailed magic systems. I’m a big fan of the Mistborn series (except for that bit at the end where Sanderson’s personal beliefs are thrust upon the unsuspecting reader) so when Sir Cheesecake offered me the chance to review The Rithmatist, I was more than happy.
It’s important to note that I’m reviewing the audio version of the book, which the publisher’s PR company were kind enough to credit to my Audible account. Upon pressing play, the first thing my wife and I noticed was that the narrator’s voice was a bit robotic and soporific and this drained a lot of the feeling out of what I’m sure were supposed to be highly dramatic situations. It didn’t help that he sounded a fair bit like the voice of the Sad Cat Diary. Despite this, we made a supreme effort to take the story seriously!
My thoughts on audiobooks? They’re slow, you can’t skim or skip sections, and it’s impossible to read ahead. I had to make special effort to find time to listen to the thing. Having a book read to you certainly helps to smooth out any rough edges in the prose and gives the book a nice rhythm. Overall though, not nearly as fun as a good paperback.
But what of our heroes? Joel, in standard bad YA fashion, turns out to be awesome at stuff and somehow ingratiates himself in a criminal investigation, at which point he turns out to be far more effective than the police. At times, he speaks to adults in a way that would get anyone in the real world a good telling off. I just wish the adults in the story had called him on it a bit more often. This is tempered somewhat by Sanderson having Joel start out arrogant and a loner (presumably because he just won’t shut up about Rithmatics), but learning empathy as the story progresses.
Of the supporting cast Melody is the most interesting. Imagine if Luna Lovegood had spent her entire life under massive pressure to succeed and in the shadow of her extremely successful siblings. At times it seems as though she teeters on the edge of insanity, always talking, talking, talking and never quite joining the dots of reality. Fitch (bumbling academic) and Nalazar (arrogant, because reasons) represent the teaching faculty and do a decent job of giving Joel a connection to the Rithmatic world and a focus for his dislike, respectively.
The way the narrator chose to voice the characters really didn’t help them. Joel came across as a precocious little sod, Melody a shrill, crazy old lady, Fitch an old fuddy duddy, Inspector Harding a bit of a buffoon and Nalazar, well, Nalazar tried his level best to be Snape. My wife did comment that if she’d been reading it herself she wouldn’t necessarily have imagined some of the inflections that the narrator went with, which would have altered the tone of several scenes.
The world of The Rithmatist is steampunk(ish). I say this because it’s got a lot of the trappings (clockwork everywhere), but very little faux-Victoriana. Armedius Academy, Joel’s school, is in Jamestown on the island of New Britannia, and the United Isles sees America re-imagined as an archipelago. There are lots of little details, such as Italian food being eaten with chopsticks, which hint at how this world’s history differs from our own. It’s all very interesting without ever becoming overbearing, but at times it gets a bit daft. Dollar coins in this world contain clockwork mechanisms. That sounds expensive to me. Certainly more expensive than a dollar. Then there’s the church. I don’t want to spoil too much, but a version of Christianity plays a pretty big part in this world and it really grated on me. But knowing what I do of the author, I understand why it’s there.
Let’s take a moment to talk about the magic system. Rithmatics involves drawing lines with chalk. These can be used to shoot people, to animate living drawings called chalklings or to defend against your opponents shooting and creatures. The reader is assured that chalklings are capable of chewing humans into little pieces, but I found it impossible to find any of this at all threatening. So when Joel is inevitably chased by an evil Rithmatist, there wasn’t much tension for me. That said, the action scenes were described with clarity, vigour and a great sense of pace.
At the beginning of each chapter you get snippets of Rithmatic textbook entries, or similar bits of fictional non-fiction. I’m assuming that in the print version these would come complete with diagrams. In the audiobook these just didn’t work and, after the first couple, we started skipping them. Just like in the Mistborn series, Sanderson over-describes his magic system at relevant points in the prose, so the extra bits didn’t feel necessary.
The story gives us a fairly standard mystery and, to its credit, this never takes the place of character development. Things get quite gruesome at times, although some of it went way beyond my ability to suspend my disbelief. While a book with a drawing-based magic system is perhaps not the best thing to translate into an audiobook, my wife and I had a lot of fun with this. Sanderson’s world and characters are accessible, a number of twists caught us by surprise and while the characters’ arcs were a little bit obvious, this hopefully leaves them with somewhere more interesting to go in the next book.