Author: Brandon Sanderson
Publisher: Tor Teen
Publication Date: May 2013
Read: June 2013
Rating: 3.5 Unicorn Chalklings
The Quick and Dirty:
In an alternate-history world where there are islands instead of states in America and Korea has extended an empire across Europe, Joel is the 16-year-old son of a deceased chalkmaker, living at and attending Armedius Academy. His dream is to be a Rithmatist, one of the elite who can draw lines, symbols, and creatures (these last called “chalklings”) in chalk on the ground to participate in duels and protect the country from the murderous wild chalklings out in Nebrask. When a series of grisly disappearances involving wild chalklings happen close to campus, Joel and his new Rithmatist friend Melody try to get to the bottom of it before anyone else can be taken, or worse. Characters and dialogue can be a little meh, but it has some very cool ideas as the foundation of the book. Slow to start, but with a finish that makes it worthwhile.
The Wordy Version:
As I was reading the first couple hundred pages or so of this book, I thought it was just okay and was already beginning to compose this review in my head. For me, this book fits into the category of books-marketed-as-YA-that-really-feel-like-middle-grade. For all that Joel and Melody are noted to be 16, nothing about them really feels teenager-y to me—at least not how I remember being and feeling at 16. They seemed just a touch younger, maybe more like 13. And that’s fine—once I figured that out, I was able to reframe the book in my head and get back into the story.
I also had some issues with the dialogue and character development. The dialogue was often kind of clunky or contrived—it didn’t feel real, although people’s speech tics (such as the inspector’s gruff military way of speaking and Melody’s flair for the dramatic) were nice ways to inject some personality. As for the characters, they felt kind of two-dimensional to me, even though there was clearly work done to make them more realistic and fleshed-out. For example, Professor Fitch had a kind of a retiring academic personality, but I found it hard to believe he had been the top Rithmatic professor at Armedius and in his many years of study somehow missed some knowledge that Joel, a teenage non-Rithmatist, had managed to learn in his short years of unofficial study. There were just some little things like that, but nothing too huge and glaring. The characters weren’t bad--they just didn’t seem to jump off the page for me.
What was great about this book were the ideas underpinning it. I was kind of at sea with regards to the alternate history world for a while. I had just assumed that the United States had been one big land mass as we know it, and then something cataclysmic happened to divide it out into these many islands (guess I’ve been reading too much apocalyptic dystopian, eh?), but eventually the narrative explained how it had always been that way. Information about the alternate history emerged slowly and organically, and it was interesting. I would have liked even more of it dropped in there!
More than the history though, the author’s invention of Rithmatics and the whole culture and society surrounding it was really cool. It was probably the most real and alive thing about the book (which makes sense, as it was the center around which everything else was based). Between chapters, there were pages with drawings and explanations of certain aspects of Rithmatics, so we didn’t have to rely on narration and dialogue for all of the information we needed (clever!). I was impressed by the level of detail, thought, and scholarship behind it. I can see tweens and maybe even teens reading this and getting really obsessed with it, learning how to draw the shapes and symbols and chalklings, and taking an interest in geometry. This was definitely one of the book’s greatest strengths. (I’ll also note here how much I loved the illustrations! The maps on the endpapers and the chapter heading illustrations were all really cool. Kudos to Ben McSweeney on a job well done!)
Now, as I mentioned before, as I was reading the first 300 pages I thought it was simply okay. The book was quick to read, but it felt kind of slow, like not much was happening. Joel and Melody seemed to be wandering around campus on the fringes of the excitement that was unfolding. At this point, I was feeling like the book was average, but geared toward a younger audience than I had expected and I probably wouldn’t read the sequel.
BUT THEN I got to the last 70 pages. And they were amazing! Whabam, action and speed! It was so exciting that any of my nitpicks about dialogue and character were forgotten. In fact, I’d say those final pages were when some of the best character development happened, such as with Professor Fitch and Melody. It was genuinely engrossing and fun in a way that I had hoped for, but not really gotten, in the earlier part of the book. Then there was the twist that we had all expected, but then it turned out that there was another twist back that nicely removed any trope-iness of that trope. Even the denouement after the mystery is solved is fast-paced and exciting—I wanted to cheer when Melody and Joel were participating in the Rithmatic Melee. So. Much. FUN!
It was an unexpected and very welcome surprise that these last pages so turned around my enjoyment of the book. I went from not having much interest in a sequel, to definitely wanting to read it. I’d give the first 300 pages of the book 3 stars, with an extra .5 awarded for the awesomeness of the final pages. If the whole book had had the same feel as those, it’d be 4 stars overall. Looking forward to the next one, with great hope that it will live up to the promise of those last few chapters!