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The Rithmatist, by Brandon Sanderson

Updated on March 26, 2016

In a time that might be around a century ago, but which, then again, might not, Joel Saxon is fanatical about Rithmatics.

Rithmatics is magic that is created through drawing with chalk. The specifics of Rithmatic techniques is too complicated to go into detail here (though Sanderson does a great job on the details in the book itself), with offenses and defenses and everything else. In short, Rithmatics is based on trigonometry, conic sections, and art. Joel has a natural feel for the mathematics involved in Rithmatics, but he is not a Rithmatist.

The dominant religion in North America is a denomination of Christianity called the Monarchical Church. All children born into the church go through a ritual called "inception" on the first July 4 after their eighth birthdays. The children go into something called an inception chamber and when they emerge they are members of the church. However, for some children, it is more than just a membership ritual. One child in a thousand comes out of the inception chamber as a Rithmatist.

Unfortunately, on the July 4 after his eighth birthday, Joel was in the hospital by the bedside of his dying father, a chalkmaker at Armedius Academy, a school for Rithmatists that also educates the children of the wealthy. As a result, Joel was incepted the following January and he never went into the chamber during his inception. This has haunted Joel ever since, as he wonders if he would have been chosen to be a Rithmatist if he had gone into the chamber.

The summer of Joel's 16th year, he still learns as much as he can about Rithmatics. He has mostly adjusted to the idea that he won't ever be a Rithmatist. However, he takes any chance he can to lurk in Professor Fitch's Rithmatics classroom soaking up the information. He is there the day that Professor Nalizar, newly arrived from the battlefield in Nebrask, challenges Fitch to a duel and wins, thus winning Fitch's position and demoting Fitch to the position of tutor.

Though Joel is angry on Fitch's behalf, Fitch's demotion opens a door for Joel. Two Rithmatic students (who have the unfortunate names of Herman and Lilly, giving me flashbacks of "The Munsters") have disappeared, and Fitch has been put in charge of the investigation. The Principal of Armedius gives Joel the job of assisting Fitch. This both keeps Joel occupied for the summer, and also gives Joel a chance to learn more about Rithmatics. At least, Joel hopes it will. He is disappointed to find that his first task for Fitch has nothing to do with Rithmatics. Fitch assigns him to pore over census records.

Fitch has a second student assigned to him for the summer, Melody. Melody is a Rithmatic student who is hopelessly inept at even the most basic defenses, though she is an amazing artist. She is only a year away from being sent to Nebrask, and so Fitch has the summer to try to teach her what she needs to know so that she can get the most out of her final year of schooling before she goes to the battlefield.

I have mentioned the battlefield of Nebrask twice now. What, exactly, is going on in Nebrask? To be honest, no one who has not been there is completely sure. When the European settlers landed in the islands of North America, they found it deserted. There was no sign that humans had ever set foot there except for a tower on the island of Nebrask. From what I can tell (and this may mean that I will need to read the book a third time), the only living things that were found weren't living at all. They were the wild chalklings -- two-dimensional drawings that were inhabiting the island of Nebrask. Now that the islands have been settled by humans, though, it has become imperative that the wild chalklings stay confined on Nebrask. As a result, every Rithmatist has to spend his or her last year of schooling and the first ten years afterwards fighting the wild chalklings. In exchange for this service, retired Rithmatists are given a generous stipend that means that they won't ever have to work again if they don't want to.

Way back at the beginning I said that the setting of the book might be a century ago, but it also might not. This is because North America, rather than being a continent, is at least sixty islands. Perhaps this is just a difference between our world and the world of "The Rithmatist," but perhaps this is the result of some kind of cataclysm that will happen in our future, setting "The Rithmatist" even farther in the future. The existence of the tower in Nebrask and the wild chalklings also seems to indicate to me that there were human residents on the United Isles at some point.

As this is set in something that may or may not be the early 20th century, the Industrial Revolution has happened and automation is now on the increase. In this case, the automation is clockwork, making this a "gearpunk" novel, apparently. The uses to which Sanderson puts this wind-up automation are fascinating, from clockwork horses and clockwork trains to little clockwork crabs that trim the lawn of the school. I am, however, slightly dubious about why people have to wind their rifles and lanterns.

On the whole I really loved this book and am very much looking forward to the next volume in the series. "The Rithmatist" answers enough questions that it could stand alone as a novel, but it also has enough texture and asks enough new questions that it also makes a wonderful introduction to a new series.

Update: I still am looking forward to the next book, which is currently due out in 2017. Maybe I'll be able to take it with me to read when I take my currently-in-the-planning-stages next trip to Europe, which will be in 2017.

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