Review posted February 16, 2014.
Tom Doherty Associates Books (Tor), New York, 2013.
2013 Cybils Finalist
The Rithmatist is a fantasy story set in an intricately detailed alternate reality. The world isn’t slightly different from ours; it’s drastically different. In the front, there’s a map of “The United Isles,” a collection of large islands with shapes and names similar to our states. It’s like America would perhaps look if sea level were a lot higher or the land was a lot lower.
We follow the fortunes of Joel, essentially a charity student at Armedius Academy. He’s obsessed with Rithmatics, and in his job as messenger, manages to sneak into some Rithmatic classes. He talks about historical Rithmatic battles and can draw a nine-point circle better than the Rithmatic students.
Joel wants to study his summer elective with Professor Fitch, a Rithmatics professor. But Fitch gets challenged to a duel and then demoted to tutor. Which does give Joel an opportunity to study with him – along with Melody, a remedial Rithmatics student, who can draw chalklings incredibly well, but can’t manage a circle to save her life.
We gradually learn about that world, where magic is done by Rithmatists with chalk drawings and diagrams that they can animate. They spend their final year of study on the Isle of Nebrask, fighting the wild chalklings, which can eat people.
Rithmatists are chosen by the Master, but because of his father's death, Joel missed his chance to be chosen.
And Rithmatic students begin disappearing, with traces of blood and strange new patterns drawn in chalk near the scenes of the attacks. Professor Fitch is in charge of the investigation, and Joel eagerly tries to help him put the pieces together.
As I read this, I was trying to decide if it was a clever use of math – with the geometry of the Rithmatic lines – or if it was just silly. I decided, in the end, that it was clever, and only a tiny bit far-fetched. I was never pulled dramatically out of the world by a logical inconsistency.
Now, I always dislike bullies in children’s books, or characters that our hero just knows are up to no good (like the whole house of Slytherin). This book has some of that, which may have helped the characters feel a little cardboard to me. But the book included a nice solution to the mystery, a nice moment of triumph for our heroes, an introduction to a fascinatingly complex world, and plenty of threads to lead us into sequels. I will definitely want to find out what happens next.