I never got into The Wheel of Time. Back when it started, I heard of it, but it never grabbed my attention (by then, I had outgrown Piers Anthony, but had found my way into the heart of Stephen King territory), and now, I feel like there are just too many books for me to get started on it now (which is to say nothing of my lack of interest in that fantasy genre). As it is, I've not been reading like I used to, and let's face it: My stack of unread books is already big enough that I'm not keen on adding fourteen more titles to it. This is my long-winded way of saying that I knew who Brandon Sanderson was, but I didn't know his style, nor did I really have much interest in finding much out about it. What can I say? I have reading prejudices.
Luckily for Sanderson, The Rithmatist is a book I found on a day when I was feeling impulsive. The cover art caught my eye, and the dust jacket blurb convinced me to give it a try. It didn’t seem to be the kind of fantasy I don’t normally read, it was a YA novel, and it seemed to be the kind of story that would be steeped in adventure. The story revolves around Joel Saxon (not, I will point out, a traditional fantasy name), a student at a prestigious school for Rithmatists, who are wizards of sorts who can control their magic using chalk drawings.
(Yes, you read that correctly: Chalk drawings. Duels and battles feature in the action sequences, and you have to picture multiple participants standing in chalk-drawn circles, drawing defenses based on the geometry of said circles, and even sending out little chalk-drawn creatures to attack their opponents' circles, since breaching that circle means defeating your opponent. It sounds laughably stupid, doesn't it? Instead of racing to escape an attacker, you have to stop, kneel, and draw stuff on the pavement? How did this make it past the story pitch?)
Anyway, Joel isn't a Rithmatist, but he does know an incredible amount of the history behind Rithmatists, and he has a remarkable aptitude for geometry. This makes him one of the smartest students on the campus, just without the talent to make it all work. He may be able to draw a perfect circle, but he doesn't have the magic to make it come to life like the Rithmatists can. And that's really the heart of the novel.
On the surface, the book sounds a little stupid, but I'll be damned if it doesn't all work. The characters are easy to relate to, the narrative is compelling and vivid, and the action scenes are well written, especially when you consider that the bulk of them are "So-and-so knelt, chalk in hand, with an intense look on his face." Sanderson knows how to write it to make it interesting, and I would be lying to you if I said I didn't get excited when a Rithmatist produced a piece of chalk at a key moment in the book. I found myself wanting to cheer the good guys on, and see the bad guys fail.
Speaking of the bad guys, Sanderson creates them very well. I mean, think of that anger and frustration you felt toward Professor Snape or Dolores Umbridge when they were so plainly unfair to Harry Potter, and you’ll get an idea of how Sanderson creates Professor Nalizar. The character doesn't have the depth of Snape or Umbridge (ultimately, at least in this first book, all there is to Nalizar are those surface characteristics), but he serves as a great foil to Joel and Melody, the Rithmatist he befriends while working on a summer research project for the kindly, bumbling professor who has always treated Joel with respect. That conflict helps drive the narrative and keep the reader engaged. I wasn't thrilled with how the book ended between the characters, but I can see that it was done in a way to keep that conflict going throughout the rest of the series. I just didn't think it was an elegant way to continue it.
My biggest issue with the book is the similarities it has to Harry Potter. The parallels aren't as great as they are with, say, the Percy Jackson series, but there’s definitely a Harry Potter vibe to it all. Joel is a supposed nobody with hidden talents, who befriends a talented girl his age, and attends a school where the headmaster likes him, and one particular professor seems to want to have it out with him. I'm seeing it more and more often in the YA novels I read, and I get it — if it works for one author, why not use that same trope to additional success? — but it would be nice to see something more original. I give the author credit for not making it a formulaic copy of the series, but there are definitely aspects that are familiar.
Now, that's not to say that I won't be reading the rest of the series; I will. In fact, I'll probably make a special trip to the bookstore when the next one is released, since I really want to see where the story goes from here. And having to wait an uncertain number of months before I can read it? Well, now I guess I know how all those fans of The Wheel of Time felt.