Joel wants to be a Rithmatist. Like, really bad
. That's made abundantly clear for, oh, the entire book. Which is cool - being a Rithmatist sounds pretty sweet. Drawing with chalk and doing geometry and such and magic happens. It's a really unique system and I think one that lends itself really well to a YA book. Which, frankly, is the most important fact to remember when dealing with The Rithmatist - it's a YA book. It's written as such, the plot depth is as such, and the subject matter is as such. It's another in the theme of "kids growing up in magic schools", which is a tried and true fantasy trope at this point, although one that is still quite popular and works quite well. I enjoy books in this style and have never had an issue with them.
The Rithmatist follows Joel, a 16 year old son of a chalkmaker who attends school at a prestigious academy that caters to rich aristocratic style children, as well as being one of the top schools for Rithmatists. The school is situated in New Brittania, one of the many isles of the American Archipelago - a set of islands that make up basically the United States, that happen to have very similar and often cringeworthy bastardizations of the names of the states ("Floridia" for example). The world is a turn of the 20th century pseudo-steampunk setting, with gear based trains, clockwork this and that, and Victorian style dress. Rithmatists, as mentioned before, are magicians who are trained from youth to use "chalk magic" - essentially they draw shapes, circles and various lines of chalk on the ground that turn into shields, offensive weapons and create "chalklings", which are little chalk monsters. The entire point of training these Rithmatists is to send them to the (very cringeworthy) isle of Nebrask, where the "wild" chalklings and monsters live and are contained by the warrior Rithmatists, to protect the other isles from these chalklings. Sounds interesting enough, right?
I hope you're used to seeing the word Rithmatist, because it's probably used 500 times in the book. Every other sentence has a mention of it. But that's what Sanderson does - he is a magic system specialist, and this magic system is the focus of the book. The plot follows Joel as he struggles to try and become a Rithmatist, befriends a loner Rithmatist girl and a Rithmatist professor who is ousted from his job by Snarly McBadguy, the token twirly-moustache villain type who shows up, beats the professor in a duel and takes his job. We follow Joel, Melody and Professor Fitch as they try to track down a vague badguy, who is capturing/killing Rithmatist students on the campus of the school. The story is a bit on the generic side and definitely lacks depth, though Sanderson's world is well developed and the magic system is fairly complicated despite seeming a bit basic. This book is clearly the first in a series, and ends on a bit of a cliffhanger (or, more accurately, our protagonist shaking his fist in the general direction of Snarly McBadguy and screaming "I'll get you eventually!"), and a lot of the book is spent developing the world and the magic system while pretending to advance the story. It does bog down a little bit at times, as Sanderson spends energy explaining the magic system in depth and some of the history of it. It reminds me of the first half of [b:A Way Of Kings|3333870|From Joshua to Jesus A Brief Chronicle of the Kings, Empires, Legends and Ideas, That Paved the Way to Bethlehem|Andrew Cort|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1347554643s/3333870.jpg|3371916], except that there isn't a magical second half to the book like there is in AWOK.
That said, the book is enjoyable, and I can imagine a young fantasy fan, perhaps a Harry Potter fan, would enjoy this novel and setting. It feels like it's probably best for kids in the 12-14 bracket; the writing is accessible and fluid, and the prose is good as Sanderson's always is. The subject matter isn't particularly mature, but there are moments of describing some blood, piles of bodies, etc, and it can be a bit morbid in that way. However, Sanderson is never vulgar at the worst of times, and this book is no exception. The story moves well enough for a younger reader, and the ending is exciting enough, full of action, and ends on a high note with aforementioned cliffhanger. The book itself is very high quality, the illustrations are nice, and the presentation is well done. The audiobook was read by Michael Kramer, and I thought it was one of his better performances that I've listened to.
Overall, the book was a bit lacking; the writing was good, world interesting, magic interesting, characters ok - real but a bit bland. I liked it, I didn't love it, and I will likely read the second entry when it arrives. Hopefully the second book is filled with more action, being as much of this one was spent setting up the world.