One of the more intriguing trends in the publishing world is authors from one targeted demographic attempting to crossover and target another demographic. For example, J.K. Rowling recently published her first “adult” novel with The Casual Vacancy while Elizabeth George went after a young adult audience with The Edge of Nowhere.
And while I’m not one who judges a book by the section of the bookstore or the library where it’s shelved, it’s intriguing to see what happens when an author gets out of his or her comfort zone.
You can add to the list of best-selling authors who are looking to expand their audience writer Brandon Sanderson (who given how much output he has and the sheer length of his novels, I am beginning to wonder if he somehow has figured out a way to write a novel using telepathy and while he’s asleep). Every publisher is looking for the next big fantasy series along the lines of Harry Potter and given Sanderson’s pedigree in the fantasy genre, a young adult series from him seems like a good idea.
Enter The Rithmatist.
All of the strengths of a Sanderson fantasy novel are on display — a magic system that has clearly defined rules and limitations so it can’t be used to write himself out of any situation or peril that comes up as well as having characters have different degrees of ability within the magical system. Like all talents or traits, there are some who have a better grasp of some elements of the system while others have a better grasp of others. In this case, the magical system is one that brings chalk drawing to life and they do battle. There are various ways in which battles can be won and there is a skill and a strategy to it. Sanderson spends a lot of the novel laying out the rules and strategies of his new magical system, but he also allows them to play out on the printed page and for the reader to see the system in action.
Set in an alternate reality where the United States is divided up into various territories, the story follows a young student named Joel who wants nothing more than to study and become a Rithmatist. The son of a chalk maker, Joel is denied entry to the program but that doesn’t stop him from sneaking into lectures and learning all he can about the history and strategies of being a Rithmatist. During the summer, Joel becomes the assistant to an ousted professor, who tasks Joel with studying survey records and census data. At first, the reason for this eludes Joel, but over the course of the story things slowly begin to fall into place and we discover why Joel his asked to do this.
And while I liked the novel, I can’t say I necessarily enjoyed it as much as I have other works by Sanderson. Reading it, I kept being reminded of the first Harry Potter novel, which had the burden of doing all the heavy lifting of establishing the universe, characters and magical system for future novels to pay off. I think that could be the case here with The Rithmatist and that future installments (and make no mistake, there will be future installments) will benefit from the heavy lifting and world-building done here.
However, that isn’t the only weakness to the novel. The other (and the biggest) is Joel himself. Joel’s one goal in life is to become a Rithmastist. It’s not a bad motivation, but it feels like we’re reminded of this every several pages. I kept wanting Joel to be given a more diverse story than his desire to part of the magical community. I also kept waiting for Joel to have something more to offer than just his overwhelming desire to become a Rithmatists or be admitted to the program.
Sanderson offers a few hints that there is more to Joel than meets the eyes and I have a feeling he’s setting up things for future installments. I will give Sanderson some credit in that he doesn’t just allow Joel to achieve all his desires in the book and everything to work out and be all good and neatly wrapped up by the novel’s conclusion. Again, it will be interesting to see how the universe and the characters develop over the next entry in the series. (Though I can only hope that Sanderson will have an end-game in mind for the series and not keep it going and going and going as certain other authors do).
I came away from the novel wanting to like it more than I did. It felt like a lot of set-up for something more and I have faith that Sanderson can put all the pieces together when it comes to the bigger picture. I’m certainly intrigued enough the universe, the system and the characters to want to pick up the next installment and see where things go. I have a feeling this may be a book that grows in my estimation once I see how Sanderson pays off some of the threads he’s woven here.