The Rithmatist (2013) by Brandon Sanderson

I liked this book a lot more than Sanderson’s other YA series, Alcatraz. It was more of a typical Sanderson book in a lot of ways – intriguing worldbuilding, a structured magic system, series of twists at the end. It didn’t overall come together for me, but I still enjoyed a lot of aspects of the book, and am hoping I like the sequel more.

The worldbuilding is a strength (surprise surprise!). I liked the steampunk aesthetic, more overt than in the second Mistborn series. Honestly, a lot of the time I wished I was reading a different story in this world, because Joel’s YA school adventures don’t feel like the most interesting story that could be told in this fascinating alternate steampunk “United Isles of America”. This isn’t what I’d really call a fundamental flaw or anything of the book, it’s as much a case as me not being the target audience (children and teenagers) for this novel in this genre.

If I’d read this as a kid, or even a young teen, I think I’d have been much more enthralled with the magic system, and studiously poured over all the diagrams. But as an adult, and coming off reading something like fifteen Sanderson books in a row before this one, I was less engaged with it, although I recognised it was well structured and interesting enough. Not as novel or creative as allomancy, BioChromatic breath, or windrunning, but certainly more interesting than something looser like the magic in Alcatraz. Similar to Elantris’ AonDor system in some ways (I bet Raoden and Joel would have plenty to talk about!).

The diagrams at the start of chapters ended up feeling like homework to me rather than fascinating in the way that the illustrations in The Stormlight Archive are; they were very detailed but not interesting in their own right the way explanations of magic in, say, The Emperor’s Soul is. I didn’t feel invested enough in the story to really enjoy the very detailed magic diagrams as much as I could have.

On the topic of illustrations, I do absolutely love that Sanderson is pushing having lots of illustrations in books, and Ben McSweeney’s work is always absolutely fantastic. I hope their partnership continues for a long, long while.

I was never able to fully shake from my mind that a novel might have been the wrong choice of format for this story. The entire story is about drawings. There’s an excellent artist working on the book already. Why not make it a graphic novel? Sanderson makes an aside about this in the author’s note, but I’m still baffled that the story took this form. It seems so much more suited towards being a comic – yet White Sand, a story with no inherent focus on drawings, becomes the comic, and The Rithmatist, a story literally entirely about drawings, doesn’t? Strange, and disappointing.

The actual story of the book itself was painfully slow-paced and uneventful. There were some neat mystery twists at the end, but the majority of the book is just characters moping and studying. Not sure how a rigorous outliner like Brandon managed a story in which barely anything happens. I’ve heard the same complaint about Mistborn: The Well of Ascension, but tonnes happens in that books, not just in terms of plot, but in character and thematic development. Here? Not so much.

The characters are extremely thin (Fitch especially), but the two leads are likable, and I really, really like a decision Sanderson made to keep a certain character “de-powered” rather than magically fixing his problems. Felt much more mature and realistic than this genre normally goes for.

Overall, I had a decent time with this book, but I think there were some fundamental problems that kept me from really enjoying it.

I give it two pieces of blue chalk, and a drawing of a unicorn.

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