My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It’s a rare day when I give out a five star rating (and in truth it’s more 4.5 since the beginning was a tad slow) but I loved this book (also Mr. Sanderson has earned another 5 star rating from me, so yeah, he’s good). This book is what you’d get if you mixed Harry Potter with the fundamentals of alchemy from Full metal Alchemist then took them out to meet Sherlock Holmes. I can only imagine what the sales pitch would be like for this. ‘Chalk drawings can come to life. People duel by drawing highly specific circles (the foundation of rithmatics) and other lines.’ You’d probably get a sideways look or a ‘sounds boring’ (and some reviewers accused this book of that. We obviously have different ideas of what’s boring). It sounds strange but it works.
Mr. Sanderson is a master of revealing his world bit by bit without info dumping or leaving the reader completely confused (seriously, unless you’ve tried to write fantasy you have no idea how hard that is). Our hero is Joel, a 16 year old boy at Armedius, a private school for rithmatists and traditional, but wealthy students. Joel is your typical underdog. He’s the son of a chalk maker and a housekeeper. His father is gone and out of pity, the school is covering his tuition. Joel wants more than anything to be a rithmatist but things went awry at his inception, a ceremony (semi-religious) at age 8 that all children go thru and if the Master decides to grant the power, then they become rithmatists and are able to bring chalk to life.
Joel doesn’t fit in with the exclusive and isolationist rithmatists but neither does he fit in with the wealthy students. His one consolation is that the job he has delivering notes to faculty allows him to sit in on lectures, well Professor Fitch’s lectures anyhow. Joel knows more about the theory of rithmatics than anyone else his age but lacks the ability to put it into action, no matter what he hopes for. Joel wants to study more and ends up being assigned to Fitch to help him with a project over the summer which pleases him until he finds out it’s sort of more office work than anything.
He also meets up with Melody, a student in remediation with Fitch. Melody can draw beautifully detailed chalklings, little chalk creatures but sucks at the basic circle. At first Melody is a bit abrasive (I often have this issue with Sanderson’s women. They are strong but they usually take me time to warm up to). Melody and Joel start off adversarial but eventually become good friends, especially as Joel learns that Fitch’s special project has a dark side. Rithmatist students have gone missing and Fitch is working with Inspector Harding to find out who is doing this and stop them before another student falls victim.
As the layers of the story peel back, you realize this is an alternative Earth with vast power shifts (for example the USA is not one big country but rather a series of islands that barely get along) and Nebrask is the wild frontier where wild chalklings run loose and can/will kill you. That is what Rithmatists do, they are obligated to a decade on the front lines. This doesn’t deter Joel. I’d say time wise, it’s about 1880-1910, since women are just getting into the work force (but they can be Rithmatists). Joel, Melody and Fitch have to find the kidnapper/potential murderer before he strikes again.
This is a stand-alone book but the end sets up the next in the series. I’ll be buying it and this one is going right on my ‘keep’ shelf. I loved Joel and Melody.
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