If you love the idea of dominating through geometry, then The Rithmatist is the gearpunk fantasy for you.

I wish the hardcover book came with three pieces of chalk. Just so I could hold one and imagine drawing a circle of protection around myself. Anchoring it with lines. Defending it with chalk drawings that come alive. Scrawling wave patterns that snake outward in white blasts of power.

My drawing will need precision, lines straight, angles exact. If any weakness exists, the enemy chalkings will find it. Skittering, squirming caricatures will swarm across the floor. Like demon cockroaches, they’ll gnaw me to the whites of my bones.

With the monsters in this world flat, Brandon Sanderson ties one dimension behind his back and still creates terrors. His antagonist, the Scribbler, is kidnapping the students of a magic school with chalky minions. The madness of his scrawling defies understanding. That’s where the scholarly Joel comes in. His infatuation with Rithmatic magic has driven his life—and ruined it when he learned he could not become one. His perfect chalk lines have no power.

In this story of a magic school, the protagonist is a disenfranchised servant. Joel cannot help himself. He steals into the classrooms of Professor Fitch to watch demonstrations. The defensive circles of chalk are a convolution of interlocking spheres.

Few readers could visualize them without pictures. Luckily, this novel has a wealth of pictures. From the hordes of attacking chalkings, to a filigree of gears on the chapter titles, to diagrams of Rithmatic patterns, this story is a visual delight. The arcane shapes allow readers to imagine drawing the spells themselves; The Rithmatist might as well be a spellbook.

A piece of chalk is more accessible than a wand, and in this world they’re equally magical. The system of spellcraft is so well detailed that two readers could compete against each other in a Rithmatic duel. At the end of ten minutes of frantic drawing, they could be judged by the strength of their lines and their strategy, the detail of their chalking minions, the elegance of their circles. I can think of no other magic system so pure and participatory.

Veteran of epic fantasy, Brandon Sanderson is known for the strength of his magic and his worldbuilding. He delivers in The Rithmatist on both fronts. In this gearpunk setting, not only do metal horses clank across the street but also clockwork crabs clip the lawn. Even the gold coins have gears. The circular machinery has religious significance; the religion dictates the use of chalk drawings, and the chalkings push the springs that power the gears. Brandon Sanderson has interlocked and oiled the world mechanisms of this alternate history. The strangest part? That a $1 coin has such buying power.

The United Isles of America are more fractious than their real-world counterparts. They might not have an alliance at all except for their need to join forces against the evil power of the Chalk Tower. (My name for it, not Brandon Sanderson’s.) Every night, the tower unleashes chalk zerglings, and only Rithmatists can stop them. Fight chalk with chalk! Because the nation needs Rithmatists, their disappearances at the school are all the more dire.

Neither Joel nor the faculty realize the extent of the threat for the first few chapters, and the protagonist starts the book only worried about his exclusion from the rich Rithmatist cliques. Joel’s apathy toward non-geometric subjects has sabotaged his grades, and expulsion looms. He can only motivate himself to pass his classes by also contriving to study under Professor Fitch, hoping to learn stray tactics for drawing chalk.

Professor Fitch’s prowess in magic is only rivaled by his cowardice. He had to leave the battle at the Chalk Tower, lest his shaking hands endanger compatriots. He does have the wisdom to notice Joel’s talents as a research assistant, and he includes the boy in his investigation of the missing students. The two must analyze alien chalk drawings used by the Scribbler before he kidnaps again.

The professor’s other student, Melody, hates being excluded. She has self-esteem issues from her inability to draw a circle of protection. Joel is less than sympathetic, as he has a perfect pitch for geometry but not a note of magic. This leads to an interesting situation, where the protagonist is called out by the professor for bullying. (Has that ever happened before in literature?)

The book is illuminated by both drawings and solid advice. Older teens might find it heavy handed, but I chortled at a few truisms. Melody had a delicious one. After multiple chance encounters with Joel, she accuses him of stalking her. He denies it, and she says if he shows up outside her window at night, she’ll scream and throw something at him. That’s one point for The Rithmatist, zero for Twilight.

Melody might have trouble drawing straight lines, but she knows her way around a unicorn chalking. A force of personality, she at one point says, “What good are friends if they don’t put you into mortal peril once in a while?” When she and Joel start working together—his mind for patterns and her unicorn army—I pumped my fist and shouted, “Combo!”

Through research and teamwork, the heroes battle their way to the ending. They win a brilliant victory but not an ultimate one. The Rithmatist marks itself as the first book in a series, and only a few clues are dropped about the origins of the chalky magic.

In the story afterward, Brandon Sanderson admits that he wrote this novel several years ago, before he began his work on the Wheel of Time. Perhaps in part because of this, the sentences have more functionality than poetry. The plot itself is overshadowed by the strength of the magic system.

Brandon Sanderson aimed to write a young-adult novel, but in my opinion he hit middle-grade. The story lacks the romantic bubblings and flavorful prose that I would expect for that genre. The upside is that The Rithmatist will delight a younger battalion of readers, as well as older ones who love the beauty of geometry and well-thought-out magics.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to practice my nine-point circle defense. And, yes, that is chalk dust on my fingers.


By A. E. Marling

AE Marling is a fantasy writer, dancer, law-abiding citizen, and human being (in that order). He encourages everyone to touch the sky of human imagination and read fantasy. He collects reasons people love fantasy on his blog, The Importance of the Impossible. The siren call of his tweets emanate from @AEMarling.

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