Hmm, where to start other than saying this is a Brandon Sanderson novel, and at this point he’s pretty much going to get money from me for every book that he writes, so of course I read this one. On we go.
First book in the series
The main character in the book is Joel, a young man attending the one of the premier schools in the country, Armedius Academy. He isn’t especially intelligent enough to attend the school, nor is his family rich in any way, but his father had worked there for years before he died and as a way of thanking his family the principal offers him free tuition. Joel is an interesting character, one who enjoys learning a lot, just not the things that those above him think that he should be learning (similar to myself in high school in some respects). Joel is a bit of an outcast, liked by most of the people that he meets but never really fitting into any of the cliques that form in society. Throughout the course of the book he also meets Melody, a cheerful young girl who is a rithmatist but doesn’t really care to be. The juxtaposition of the two – the cheerful girl who doesn’t care for being a rithmatist and the slightly dour boy who wishes beyond everything else that he could be – is played off well in the story. All of the side characters in the book were solid as well.
The book is set in an early 1900’s version of America where instead of being the full continent, it consists of about 60 large islands. There is also a very large steampunk aspect to the world, with varied and powerful machines set up and used throughout the story. It’s an interesting way to set the story within our world without it being our world. By doing this he gains the advantages of having a story set in our world, you know the general geography and where everything is in relation to other areas, along with a rough history of the world, but he also gets the benefits of having a fantasy world, where the magic and political order doesn’t feel out of place. It’s really a well done setting.
The book starts towards the end of a school year as Joel starts to figure out what he wants to do with his schedule. Through a bit of trickery on his part, he manages to find a way to work with a professor who is a historian of Rithmatics, the magic of the world. As he starts working with Professor Fitch he finds out that Fitch was chosen to investigate the disappearance of a young girl who was training as a rithmatist. The book plays out as a murder mystery, but by the end it starts to turn into the epic fantasy style of series that Sanderson is known for.
The characters were all fun, and the story was fast paced and interesting (I actually read the book in one sitting, yeah, all 370 pages. To be fair, it’s a YA book, but a fairly long YA book.). I actually think that one of the biggest weaknesses for most of the book – and this is rare for me to say about a Sanderson book – is the magic system. It’s a very visually intensive magic system, and until you see it in use later in the book, it’s a bit hard to visualize exactly what is going on. There are illustrations throughout the book that help with this, but it’s still a bit strange (more on the illustrations later). As always Sanderson had a neat twist on the end of the novel, it’s really this twist which allows for the expansion of the single book into a bigger world and story. The book could have been good without it, but I’m always a fan of big series with lots of books, so that works out for me. It’s also good because it took me most of the book to fully understand the magic system, so I’d like to see more books with the same magic system now that I have a really good idea of how it works.
Now, one of the things that helps the magic system, and in many ways the book as a whole is that there are illustrations before every chapter that depict the circles used in the book, as well as illustrations throughout the pages that depict the ‘chalklings’ as they’re drawn. In the acknowledgements of the book, Sanderson mentions that Ben McSweeney – the artist for the pictures within the book – threw out the idea of doing a graphic novel of the story, and in some ways I think that it might work better than the prose version did.
I enjoyed the book, and I look forward to reading the rest of the series once it comes out.
Footnote here, the first picture is the actual cover of the book that I have, but I think I like the second picture better, I’m think it might be the UK cover for the book, but I’m not sure. Either way, it’s a cool picture for the book.