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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Review: The Raven Boys

November 22, 2013 at 6:16 pm (fantasy, teen)

The Raven Boys
The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Finishing a book with a resigned feeling of “Oh, of course, it’s a trilogy” is not a good sign. In fact, it’s a real shame in this case because I could have really liked this book, but instead I feel, well, resigned about it. The ending was clever and well done, and the climax actually succeeds at being credible by having been set up, invisibly in the background, for quite a while. But.

But what?

The book strives for mythic sweep while also containing a gleeful jumble of psychics and pseudoscience made real, among other elements that ‘twould be spoilery to discuss. (I will say, however, that the subplot about Noah was excellent.) But to my mind, the scope of the tale is too small for multiple volumes. It is set up – or at least that’s how it came across to me – to be the story of a Tragic Hero, not an Epic Quest. Think Orpheus, not Odysseus. No doubt the Tragic Hero thinks he’s the hero of an epic quest, and perhaps his author does too, but as far as I can see, all that’s at stake is the personal fate of him and several people close to him. That’s not epic.

So what I wanted was for the book to end with the tragic death foretold at the beginning. As I remarked while reading it, I like the Tragic Hero enough that his death would be tragic, but not enough that I want him to live. But it didn’t happen. The story veered off to become a the story of Sacrifice and Redemption of one of his friends, instead. And while that was a good story, certainly, well-done and well-characterized, it was not the story that the book appeared to be setting up in the first third, or even half.

So this book is quite good, but muddled in execution. Perhaps eventually the Tragic Hero will die, but I have doubts.

I also found the prose annoying in spots, because it seemed like every single character’s point of view contained deeply poetic insights and imagery. I like that just fine when it’s just one or two characters, or when the book is clearly written with an omniscient narrator, but in this case it just wound up feeling overdone and occasionally irksome.

I could probably also quibble about the character of Blue, the kooky magical-battery girl, but I actually like her too much as a person. So there’s that.

Worth reading, I’d say, but not spectacular and not something I’ll be adding to my personal library.

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The End of Time by P. W. Catanese (2011)

December 4, 2011 at 10:45 pm (fantasy, teen)

Book 3 of The Books of Umber.  I finished it and said, “This might possibly be the best series ending I have ever read.”

Never mind that it’s a YA series.  I keep telling you, you’re missing a lot if you wave it all off as “just kid stuff.”

I’m actually a big fan of Catanese’s work, though I’ve never gotten around to posting a review here before.  (If I reviewed everything I read, nothing else would get done.)  He’s got a whole series of at least five “what happened after the fairy tale” books that are just great.

The Umber series is distantly related to those, being set in possibly the same world of medieval technology, magic, and magical creatures.  It features, however, a man (Umber) who was transported from a future version of our world.  He’s working to provide useful cultural and technological items to his new world, but also has been given hope that he’ll be able to go back and save his old one from the violent end it was hurtling toward.

The apparent instrument of that salvation is Happenstance (known as Hap), a boy with startling green eyes and a variety of unusual powers.  The most unusual one is, in theory, the ability to perceive and manipulate people’s fates.   Umber has been advised to bring Hap along on all of his adventures, which are often quite hair-raising, but exactly why is not clear through most of the series.

The third volume presents the final working-out of at least three different plot threads that started back in the first volume, as well as a dangerous new element and (ta-da!) the resolution of the main plot.  The other characters – Sophie the one-handed artist, Oates the man cursed to always speak the truth, Smudge the archivist, and more – also make the book far more than just the adventures of Umber and Hap.

It also includes dragons, carnivorous plants, evil princes, dangerous sorceresses, an obsessed monster, and explosions.   Seriously, what’s not to like?

You’ll need to start with the first volume (Happenstance Found) to understand a bunch of the conclusion, though.  I can’t recommend it enough as a thoroughly enjoyable fantasy with elements of SF and serious ethical-philosophical concepts.  And it has a very, very good ending, too.

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The Ring of Solomon by Jonathan Stroud (2010)

July 5, 2011 at 6:48 pm (fantasy, historical fantasy, teen)

I enjoyed Stroud’s “Bartimaeus” trilogy, and this prequel to the series does not disappoint.

Bartimaeus is what humans call a demon – a spirit dragged from its native dimension by a magician, and enslaved.  These spirits don’t like this – not being enslaved, and not being in our physically painful dimension.  They are not nice creatures, but one thing that the books make clear is that it’s entirely possible that this is far more the fault of the magicians (who are not nice creatures either) than the innate nature of these beings. After thousands of years of interaction between the two, though, it’s hard to be sure.

At any rate, the original series was set in nineteenth-century London, and revolved around Bartimaeus’ enslavement by a young magician of that era.   The new book explores a period when he was enslaved back in the age of King Solomon.  Stroud improvises freely on Biblical sources here, to interesting effect.

The thing about these stories is that they’re written primarily from Bartimaeus’ point of view, and that’s what makes them.  Because Bartimaeus is obnoxious – clever, perceptive, and nearly incapable of keeping his mouth shut when the potential for a wise remark passes by.  And he’s also, despite everything, capable of appreciating the physical world and, on occasion, of not holding his repeated predicament against it and every person in it.  Or maybe it’s just that he dislikes some individuals more than others.

I think you really have to read the book to understand, actually.  It’s definitely worth your time.

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The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan (2010)

June 16, 2010 at 1:21 pm (fantasy, Reviews, teen)

Riordan, author of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, delivers more great hair-raising mythological adventures in this first volume of The Kane Chronicles.   Carter and Sadie Kane are the children, they discover, of two ancient lines of Egyptian magicians – and through no fault of their own, are in trouble with the other magicians.  It seems, also, that the Egyptian gods are too dangerous to be allowed loose in the world (or so almost everyone says), but now some of them are.

I don’t want to give much of the plot away; a lot of the fun of this book is learning exactly what’s going on, along with the characters.  Suffice it to say that the world is in great danger, and only the Kanes are likely to save it.   Also fun is that while Carter Kane is not quite the wisacre that Percy is, the book has much the same tone.

Finally, and to my mind most importantly, the book deals very deftly with an issue that rarely comes up in YA literature, but should be more present: the realities of being a mixed-race child.  Kudos to Mr. Riordan for bringing it up and dealing with it head-on, instead of comfortably pretending the whole world is colorblind.

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Graceling (2008) and Fire (2009) by Kristin Cashore

January 26, 2010 at 7:37 pm (fantasy, teen) (, , )

If you really, really don’t like Romance mixed into your Fantasy, I suggest you turn away now.

For the rest of you, I have good news:  These are fun and excellent books!  According to the author’s blog, they don’t really need a plug from little old me, but then again, you may not have heard of them yet.

Apparently they are classed as YA, though I’m not entirely sure why.  Books about 18-year-old women are for girls?  Pfft.

Anyway, these books are very strong on character and creative ideas, slightly less so on plot and world-building.  Capsule summaries:

Graceling: Katsa, 18, has been used by her uncle King Randa as a semi-official assassin and torturer for quite a few years, because she has a supernatural skill (a “Grace”) for killing.  Or so everyone thinks.  The story follows the last stages of her growth toward breaking with Randa, as well as her romance with Prince Po of Leinid and their efforts to find out who was responsible for the kidnapping of Po’s grandfather.  I am still quite fascinated by the unfolding of that last plot point, which was full of surprises.  Not to mention drama, and a marvelously evil villain.

Fire:  On the other side of some very high mountains from Katsa’s Seven Kingdoms, the Dells have monsters instead of Graces.   Monsters are creatures that are fantastically colored and able to affect humans’ minds – often without intending to.  Fire, so named for her hair’s color, is the only living human monster in the Dells.  Her ability to touch and manipulate human minds becomes key to saving the Dells from civil war; her long-term relationship with her best friend Archer, and her growing attraction to Prince Brigan, are only part of her complex relationships with the human world.

I have quibbles.  Katsa spends a considerable chunk of her book convinced that she can’t possibly break with Randa; I think this phase doesn’t last too long, but others might disagree.  She also manages to cross an unmarked, snowy, and never-used mountain pass based on what has to be a medieval map.  This I could not believe even as I was reading it, probably because I know too much about maps and mountaineering.  On the other hand, the narrative succeeded in carrying me along despite this, which is pretty impressive.  And the near-tragic event in the romance plot thread was perhaps a bit too much, but not quite (for me).

Fire’s story has more, and more complicated, relationships in it, which overall is a good thing.  But I started wondering, towards the end, if any of the characters had ever stayed faithful to their spouses, or ever intended to get married.  And also why nobody seemed to care all that much.  The stories do have that handy imaginary birth-control herb, which helps to liberate female fantasy characters from certain concerns, but it was getting to be a bit much.  Along the same lines, I felt the key characters did not agonize enough about their decision to take extreme, tradition-shattering action to put an end to that civil war (I mean, they managed to keep it secret, but it’s still a dangerous precedent).  Some may also feel that Fire agonized too much about using her powers, but I think the level was just about right.

And I also felt that in Fire the author was trying to pack too many neat ideas into the narrative; Graceling didn’t have that problem.  Did it really need the whole long backstory about the villain from Graceling, and his involvement with Fire, which had nothing to do with the main plot?  I’m dubious.  And why add in the horse?  It’s an interesting touch, but fits oddly with the rest.

Overall the worldbuilding is long on creative and interesting ideas, and short on cohesion.  In my humble opinion.  Yes, it’s an imaginary world and all, but I’m not convinced that a very high mountain range is enough to explain the radical difference between the magical nature of the Seven Kingdoms and that of the Dells.  Neither book makes any gestures, that I could detect, toward explaining this.  Though it’s possible the next book, currently titled Bitterblue, will tackle that, I don’t understand why there couldn’t just be two entirely separate worlds, one with Gracelings and one with Monsters.    Trilogy-itis again?

Still, I really enjoyed both books.  I am, after all, an inveterate nit-picker, so other readers may not even notice what I see as problems.  My summary opinion is that if Cashore continues to grow as a writer, and manages to avoid falling into the trap of writing histories instead of novels (Bitterblue is an important character from Graceling), there are a whole bunch of even better books in our future.

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Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy

October 13, 2009 at 11:41 am (fantasy, Reviews, teen, urban fantasy)

And now, as they say, for something completely different.  The Teen section of the library came through for us once again with a funny, creative, scary, contemporary fantasy adventure story.  I enjoyed it immensely, and according to the series website, there are now three volumes!  And this first one is now available under the title Scepter of the Ancients, too.

In this real-world-with-hidden-magic story, Stephanie Edgley (age 12) learns about the hidden magic the hard way – when a stranger breaks into the house she inherited from her uncle and demands “the key.”  What key?  She has no idea.  Then she’s rescued by her uncle’s detective friend, a walking, wise-cracking skeleton named (you guessed it) Skulduggery Pleasant.

Stephanie’s a pretty tough twelve-year-old (apparently she’s an athlete, though this all goes down during summer break), and that’s a good thing, because she winds up doing a lot of running, stopping fast-moving objects (fists, tree limbs, floors), and jumping off heights.  When they make the movie (they’d be stupid not to make a movie of this book … oh wait, never mind), the fight choreographers will have a grand old time.  Not to mention the SFX people.

So anyway, the Scepter of the Ancients is an unbeatable weapon, and thought to be a myth by everyone except the major villain and a very few others.  Naturally, the villain’s correct on this one.  Skulduggery and Stephanie have to figure out everything from what the villain’s after, to where it is, to how to keep it (and then get it) away from him.

Don’t think from what I’ve said so far that this novel is all jokes and hijinks – people are seriously threatened, killed, tortured, etc.   If it wasn’t for the humor it would be a terribly dark story.  As it is, even being nearly eaten by a carnivorous plant has its amusing moments.

Hmm … my library has the second and third volumes shelved in the Juvenile section instead of Teen.  Whatever.  At least they’re there!

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