Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Rithmatist

I read Elantris several months ago and have been meaning to delve more deeply into Sanderson ever since, so I couldn't resist taking a look at his venture into the young adult section.

Rating: 3 stars
Length: Moderate (378 pages in hardback)
Publication: May 14, 2013 from Tor Teen
Premise: Joel Saxon wants, more than anything else, to be a Rithmatist, but he missed the opportunity to gain that mysterious power. He spends every free hour he can spare from classes in normal subjects to dream of fighting duels with chalk. When he becomes a summer research assistant to a Rithmatics professor, he finds himself helping in a murder investigation without the power to defend himself.
Warnings: fantasy violence that's horrifying but not gory
Recommendation: If you're looking for a lighter dose of Sanderson and don't mind the younger tone, give this one a try-- I whipped through it in the course of a long afternoon. This volume establishes a good magic system and springboards into what promises to be a fun series, though I wouldn't recommend springing for it in hardback unless you know middle-schoolers who need a good gateway to his work for adult readers. 

What keeps this one engaging:

The Rithmatist opens on Joel Saxon eagerly describing one of the past great Rithmatic duels, one fought with chalk circles, rapidly-sketched chalkling creatures, and focused force of well. He himself doesn't have the power to make his drawing come to life and create an actual effect on the outside world. His lifelong dream has been to be gain that magic, but he missed the inception ceremony when he was eight and has spent the rest of his life being obsessed, to the point where he can sketch and understand the shapes better than many of the actual students. That focus has given him all the hallmarks of being a prodigy, and his math teacher is astounded at the precision of his drawing, but his knowledge is forced to remain purely theoretical. He's particularly frustrated when he ends up helping Professor Fitch, an elderly and easily flustered Rithmatics professor, with research for the summer. Fitch is unusually generous about letting Joel ask questions, given how careful Rithmatists are to keep the heart of their magic and subculture a secret from the uninitiated, but he's also providing remedial tutoring to Melody, one of the worst Rithmatic students in the school.

Melody, despite her early issues, ends up having some interesting development later in the story because she's skilled at the one aspect of Rithmatics that Joel doesn't really understand-- drawing chalklings. Rithmatists can use a Line of Making to create creatures that can wear away at another person's chalk lines, and their strength and purpose is determined by the detail, cohesion, and aesthetics that the artist has used. This is complicated by the fact that speed is necessary to win any duel, so spending too much time on a single line or chalking means that the contest will end quickly. The cover flap's claim that strategy games fans may want to bring Rithmatics to life in the real world is a stretch, but it's easy to see how Joel and others who can't use magic would be fascinated enough to follow the tactics involved. Chalk forensics add richness from a different angle, showing how Rithmatic experts can trace out the magical course of an attack based on which lines had to have done what-- it's a slower dissection, but each piece of the investigation allows the wild chalking attacks to be recreated in detail without resorting to over-dramatic flashbacks. It hits a sweet spot between dry guesses and the all-too-common urban fantasy trend of using magic to literally see what happened without having to resort to closer examination (Rosemary and Rue and Dead Things have done this, just to pull off the top of my head). All of it blends to help these chalk drawings feel like a real threat rather than just a cute idea.

The larger world of the United Isles is engaging too-- there's a map in the front and book of the book illustrating North America as a chain of large islands instead of a contiguous landmass, allowing each pseudo-state to be more culturally isolated. Sanderson plays this one with a light touch, mentioning that the JoSeun Empire (which seems to be a China-led Asia) conquered Europe just when many settlers were looking for a new place to establish themselves. Other hints, like that gold dollars have gears in them to prove their authenticity and that chalklings may be frightened of gears because they denote time, serve to flesh out both the magic and the world without getting bogged down in minutiae. This provides a reasonable reason for the normal gear-heavy steampunk aesthetic, which here extends beyond railroads and industry into the heart of the chapels, and it promises to to be explained more fully in the sequels. This setting clicks home all the better with details about tension against the Rithmatists receiving special status or people even believing that the wild chalklings are an exaggerated threat-- people are people, regardless of the landscape they inhabit.

The last few scenes pull the book together and show what Sanderson can really do-- the murderer stands revealed in a reversal of Joel's expectations, but matters fall out to reveal that the easy conclusion, or even the first few layers of them, are concealing something much darker and more compelling. While Joel is still dealing with that, the long-anticipated Melee happens and we get to see the way students map out their strategies on the spur of the moment against opponents they can understand. It seems difficult to picture chalked-out geometric shapes as exciting for most of the book, Joel's delighted chattering about the advantages of different strategies to the contrary, but the scene really comes to life when speed and rapid-fire strategy come to the fore. If the rest of the series shapes up to be like this, maybe moving away from the school setting, it'll move from fun into downright impressive.

The red pen:

Joel is supposed to be fifteen or sixteen, but the issues he faces and the way he reacts to them are framed in a way that makes him seem more firmly in middle school, somewhere around twelve. This target audience isn't necessarily a downside, but it's a jolt to see him described as an older teenager when his emotional age isn't there. He doesn't face bullying because the elite students ignore him, but he's not invited to spend the summer with them and faces daily reminders that he's only a student at Armedius because his father was a valued employee. Although he longs to study Rithmatics, it comes as a complete revelation to him that some colleges offer it as a course of study to non-Rithmatists....if he hadn't already ruined his chances of getting in anywhere by squandering this great academic opportunity and failing at least one class a year simply because he can't be bothered to do his assignments. It's one thing to have a character be careless enough to allow the fun things to overtake the necessary ones, but holes like this in Joel's thinking make it hard to believe that he knows what common sense is, let alone possesses any. He's smart enough to be an asset in a murder investigation and think out basic angles that the adults around him don't, but he has no grasp of the future beyond the next few hours or days.

He undeniably has his moments early on, like when he resolves to fail his best exam to get closer to his goals, and it's great to see Principal York tell him that it makes sense "if you think like a teenage boy." Once he's involved in the investigation, quite a bit of it smooths out, though the way his big moment of ethical struggle is being snide and condescending to Melody and being told that he needs to decide what type of man to be really doesn't help with the impression that this book is pitching to a much younger age group. (The overenthusiastic research projects and discussion questions included as bonus features at the end really put the seal on this one.) Joel wants lots of things, from magic to secret knowledge to the money to pull his mother out of debt, but he doesn't face temptations that would cause him to waver, and that's an unfortunate missed opportunity. Some books can pull off the hero's conquering of the self as the central and necessary struggle, but Joel's big problem is carelessness, and that's not enough here-- he could easily be cruel or bitter about his opportunities as he watches people squander the gifts he'd give anything to possess, but he doesn't (to borrow a phrase from Diane Duane) seem to get much darker than the spiritual equivalent of sitting in the shade.

Melody's early characterization is scattered at best and a lazy collection of gender stereotypes at worst. She's not good at match or the involved geometry of lines and circles, which is fair enough, and is instead good at drawing animals like unicorns (which Joel at first sees as a frivolous waste of time). This is in part a way for her to avoid thinking about the fact that she's bad at sketching defenses and will still have to serve her ten years on the front lines against the wild chalkings of Nebrask to keep them contained, and it works in places, but in others it just...doesn't. There aredearly  hints that she's able to focus on the shortest path to a goal while Joel is busy showing off, but this promising thread is dropped after only a scene or two. She has a dreamy paranoia that makes her come across as a high-strung Luna Lovegood, seeing conspiracies and stalking everywhere despite firm and rational evidence that it's simply not happening. It makes her later moments of using her perceived wild emotions or flightiness as a useful tool seem more like incidents from the life of a completely different person than logical character growth, particularly when the narrative breaks into the tiresome trope of "she's pretty when she's not yelling at me" to unsubtly establish Melody as the love interest whenever they're both past emotional puberty. Joel has some growth to do before he can carry a whole series, but the necessary changes in Melody are closer to a brain transplant.

The adults are a mixed bag, ranging from the excellent Principal York and Professor Fitch to sillier or more one-dimensional figures. Where Professor Fitch gets the struggle of wondering if his teaching methods are so academic that he's hurt his students' chances of survival on the front lines, most other teachers and parents fade into the background. Joel's mother is a particular disappointment, working long hours as a cleaning lady only to appear on the page long enough to lecture Joel about his grades, warn him to be careful, or drop useful hints about his dead father, who was researching Rithmatic secrets. The rest blur a bit, either catching a small handful of speaking roles or behaving in such a way that it's hard to tell whether they're almost caricatures of themselves because it plays to the writing style here or because they're hiding something. None of the adults on his side seem to have the either the power or the force of personality to deal with Joel beyond "I'm disappointed in you for this," even when he's almost giddy over having new murder scenes clues to examine or determined to make other people's personal tragedies about his own struggle or theory, and that leaves him with less in the way to structure to oppose and overcome in future volumes.

The verdict: The Rithmatist shines in creating an engaging alternate version of America, complete with odd magic and steampunk flourishes. The characterization is a little young and not what it could be, but there are enough hints at the mysteries of a larger world to make the eventual rest of the series worth investigating if you don't mind the less than nuanced tone. 

Prospects: This is undoubtedly the first in a series that could stop at a trilogy or stretch out to be much longer depending on how Sanderson decides to steer it. Volume two is slated for a 2015 release.

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~L.E. Modesitt's Imager magic system (written for adults) relies on a similar absolute command of visual detail.
~Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series addresses similar angles about talent denied, particularly in the short story "The Smallest Dragonboy" and Dragondrums, the third (but partly stand-alone) volume in the Harper Hall trilogy.

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