In the summer of 2007, Brandon Sanderson finished the draft for a book called 'The Scribbler'. However, split between finishing The Wheel of Time, working on The Way of Kings and several other shorts/novellas, Sanderson felt he didn't have enough time to do justice to the book. Now, with the humungous Wheel Of Time finally over and the first book of the Stormlight Archive published, he got back to this project, revised, reworked and released it as the start of his second YA series titled 'The Rithmatist'.
Set in an alternate America, where Rithmatists, individuals who can bring two dimensional chalk drawings to life, are the only defense against the wild chalklings, creatures who only leave corpses in their wake. Our protagonist, Joel can only watch the chosen students of the Armedius Academy, learn the magical arts that he can't. When students start disappearing and Joel is assigned to help the professor investigating the crime, he will discover that there is a lot more going on beneath the surface than he expected.
The Rithmatist is a Sanderson novel through and through, containing the well-done magic systems, plot and world-building that he's famous for. Explained through illustrations at the start of every chapter and in enthusiastic dialogs by the protagonist, Sanderson educates the reader in Rithmatics. The magic system reminded me of strategies used in RTS, card games (Sanderson plays Magic the Gathering) and particularly Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus trilogy. It has a great mix of well-defined geometric rules and artistic freedom. You could almost say, it exists at the intersection of arts and technology, which Sanderson subtly uses to setup a debate between his characters. In a similar vein, like he did in The Way Of Kings and Alloy of Law, we have scenes with the characters thinking about their faith. Going by his books, Brandon has very interesting ideas about leadership and religion, something I will ask him about when I meet him next.
Strong plots and world-building have been one of Sanderson's strengths since Elantris and he has only gotten better with time. The backdrop of the novel involving the fight at Nebrask, Joel's father absence and the origins of Rithmatics feel like they have been toned down from epic to YA fantasy in a good way. Ethnic and cultural diversity which has become a lot more prominent in modern fantasy lurks on the fringes here. Hopefully, the sequels flesh out the JoSeun empire and people from other parts of this alternate Earth. Steampunk, on the other hand, is very well integrated into the world's technology. Clocks, trains, horses and even currency involve gears and end up playing a part in the climax.
For better or worse, I could easily draw a lot of parallels between Rowling's world of Harry Potter and this one. Armedius academy and Hogwarts, Nalizar and Snape and so on. Thankfully, the story progresses a lot differently than the Philosopher's Stone ending with a couple of strong twists. The neatly bow-tied finish with a last minute villain reveal reminded me a lot Allow of Law actually.
If there's one thing the book could have done better, it would be the characterization. While Joel is a great protagonist, side characters, especially female ones like Melody and Florence could have been done a lot better. Melody has some good zingers but reverts to stereotypical girly unicorns very quickly. Since it's part-fantasy part-mystery, it makes sense for the antagonist to be a shadowy figure, but the opposition just seems to be faceless monsters who'll rip you to shreds. Given, the reveals in the last chapter do a lot to make up for antagonistic intrigue but it comes too late. Future novels should be more interesting since we have a concrete nemesis to watch out for after the end of the first one. Also, the book takes a while to get going and I only got immersed in it around second part.
Though Rowling's prose, world, characterization and feel are a lot more even, Sanderson is leaps and bounds ahead of her when it comes to the final payoff. Backed by another creative magic system, a great protagonist (whose limitations aren't removed using a deus ex machine) and a sound plot, this is among the best YA novel's I have read in a long while. WHen most authors are turning YA into a mushy vampire fest, Brandon has published a novel which plays up his strengths beautifully. I am looking forward to the sequel.
P.S.: The Reading and Activity guide is a great way to give the readers more to think about after finishing the book. Rick Riordan is among the few others who does this. I hope this is a selling point for teachers who might be looking to introduce their students to fantasy. I hope Brandon continues to do this for his other books to, online if not in print.