Review: The Rithmatist

December 27, 2013 at 10:17 am (fantasy, negativity, teen)

The Rithmatist
The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Why have I been waffling over this review for months? It’s not like it’s ever going to be read by more than a dozen people or so. I expect it’s because Sanderson is a VPA (Very Popular Author) and I’m about to be really critical of this book. But you know what, Sanderson fans? Tough. These are my opinions, and you don’t have to agree with me. You don’t even have to read them. Go on, stop reading. Shoo!

Now, then. Oh, wait, one more thing: SPOILERS AHEAD.

This was a good read, up to a point, but flawed in several important ways. The way I see it is that Sanderson had two reasonably original ideas – animated and sometimes dangerous chalk drawings, and a colonized country made up of a vast collection of islands – and pasted them over top of a bog-standard school story and the real world circa 1890-1910. To my eyes, the paste is rather lumpy and the surface of these ideas got quite wrinkled and torn.

The book is convincing when describing the chalklings in action and even the science/magic behind the creation and control of them by Rithmatists. The larger world-building, however, is much less so. Even after 200 years of tangling with the “wild chalklings,” it seems, the general populace and also the non-Rithmatist educated elite are profoundly ignorant about virtually everything to do with them – and so is the main character (Joel) and, worst of all, so is the reader. Apparently the wild chalklings just appear from a dark tower or something, off in what might be the upper Midwest or Nevada (except that it’s all islands with ripped-from-the-real-world names) and the Rithmatists who aren’t teaching or on leave are all there, trying to keep them contained.

By the way, Sanderson did avoid the major sin of pretending that the Native Americans were never there, instead saying that the wild chalklings drove them all south into the still-surviving Aztec Empire – ooookay then. Apparently it’s still the Mighty Whities who have to save the world. With SCIENCE!

… And religion: one of the things I really balked at is the notion that what looks like the High Anglican church has made all its saints Rithmatists, despite the fact that (as far as I can make out) chalklings are apparently a strictly New World phenomenon and Rithmatism a (relatively) modern response to them. Oy gevalt, he’s thinking I should believe this stuff? Old religions are really set in their ways. – Of course, it could be a new religion that’s taken over and pretends that it’s really just the old one, but nothing even hints at that (nor is it necessary: newbetterdifferent religions seem to do just fine with claiming superiority to the old ones here in the real world, nu?). Or is it really an old religion that is somehow congruent with the science/magic needed to deal with these New World chalklings? Argh. It makes no sense.

Finally, you would think that in a region consisting of a bunch of islands, creatures that are essentially drawings would have a lot of trouble getting from one island to the next. Right? Drawings, expanses of salt water, logic. This was bothering me for a good four-fifths of the book, until the BIG REVEAL: wild chalklings can inhabit and take over human beings (and probably animals, I should think)! Water problem solved. And then there’s the SLIGHTLY LESS BIG REVEAL: Rithmatists are inhabited by what, for lack of vocabulary provided by the book, I’ll call Good Chalklings, which bear a great resemblance to ancient petroglyphs.

Now, why the heck is all this a SECRET? In fact, how COULD it be? 200 years, remember. Huge chunks of the book’s plot were spent on Joel attempting to find out what everybody (or at least every educated person) should’ve known – in other words, on finding out how the world he actually lives in works. It’s like Sanderson felt that the plot about somebody murdering Rithmatist students with chalklings and the plot about Joel learning more about his deceased chalkmaker father and the plot about Joel becoming friends with Melody-who-draws-unicorns just weren’t enough to carry a novel. Honestly, the secrets of chalkmaking for Rithmatists would’ve been interesting and much less of a plot-based stupidity than the Truth about Chalklings.

And then there’s the thing that utterly killed my enjoyment of the novel, right at the end. I’d put up with the things I’ve already mentioned well enough. I tolerated the School Story 101 material, partly because I like Melody (I like characters who stubbornly refuse to conform to expectations) and partly because it was really quite well done in an “oh look, that was really quite well done” technical way – you know how you can appreciate a good magic trick even if you can see how it was done? Like that. And I have to say that when Joel joins Melody in the dueling circle (yes there is dueling) it really is a stand-up-and-cheer moment, I loved it.

But the thing that really upsets me is that Joel really wants to be a Rithmatist, but for what turns out to be boring scheduling reasons he never had a proper “inception ceremony” in which he might have become one. (It appears, by the way, that the local priest in charge of these things doesn’t even know or care how important the ceremony proper can be – whyyyyyy?? Because plot!) With a little persistence and support from friends and authority figures, though, Joel finally gets one right near the end of the book.

And two things happened that pissed me off. First, after all the setting up and setting up and setting up this event, Joel didn’t become a Rithmatist. Apparently not every reader minds having their genre expectations stomped on by the author for no good reason, but I do. Second, the no good reason is this: somewhere around here (I was too angry for the details to stick in my mind) it was casually revealed that there are only supposed to be X number of Rithmatists at one time, so there was no point in Joel going through the inception ceremony (which you’re only allowed to do once!) unless there was an opening. Which he and his professor friend would’ve known about, since they’d been laboriously going through the rolls of Rithmatists, all without a single mention of this key fact. Unless (BIG REVEAL) the fact that a number of Rithmatists (including the apparently-murdered students) had been captured by wild chalklings, who then carried them into the inside of their human hosts, threw off the count … but there was no mention of the missing-person problem, or even of this possibility. Which, again, after 200 years of experience? No.

Yes, I’ve noticed that I’m willing to give a pass to the idea that two-dimensional creatures can capture three-dimensional beings, turn them two-dimensional, and carry them to the inside of other three-dimensional beings, but NOT to the idea that knowledge crucial to the survival of a civilization has been buried in the secret sections of university libraries for generations. The one thing is a wild and interesting idea fit for exploring in a fantasy novel. The other requires generations of human beings to be so criminally stupid that I want to drag them out of the book so I can punch them in the face.

See? It’s actually quite simple. Overall, the book was written to withhold vital knowledge from all of the characters and the reader for no better reason than SURPRISE! Or to generate extra tension. Or whatever. I hate that, and I’d give it one star except that it really was a pretty good read, up to a point.

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