Time for me to make another venture in the literary world. I haven’t done this since I reviewed Ready Player One back in March of 2012. I thought I’d dive back into the fray here with
The Rithmatist is a 2013 young adult fantasy novel by Brandon Sanderson. It’s not a book that is about board games, nor are board games mentioned anywhere in it. Instead, it’s a book about the magical art of Rithmatics, which in itself is a kind of strategy game that I find fascinating. I’m all for some game designer to run with the concepts presented in the book…but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The basic plot of the book is this: Joel is a 16-year-old student at Armedius Academy, a private school where regular students are educated alongside Rithmatists. Rithmatists are people chosen in an inception ceremony at age eight to begin learning the art of controlling chalk drawings. Due to circumstances beyond his control, Joel missed the inception ceremony and, despite knowing more about Rithmatics than most Rithmatists, does not have the ability. Nevertheless, he gains a summer tutelage with one of the Rithmatic professors, Fitch, who has recently lost his tenure in a duel with a young upstart named Nalizar. Around this time, Rithmatist students begin disappearing from their homes in mysterious circumstances. The only clues are some broken defenses, remnants of chalklings, and two shapes heretofore unknown by Rithmatists. Along with his friend Melody, Joel assists Professor Fitch in figuring out the mystery, but will they manage to stop the attacker before it’s too late?
I’m going to avoid spoilers as much as I can in this review, and I’ll warn you if anything is coming up that you shouldn’t know yet. So here we go.
SETTING: Brandon Sanderson has created a fantasy world that is like ours, and yet very different. Traditional fantasy tends to be set in a time resembling the medieval era, but this book seems more modern. Most of the book takes place at Armedius Academy, which is a school located in New Britannia, one of the sixty United Isles. The United Isles resemble America in shape and names, but are a series of islands rather than contiguous shapes. The names of some of the islands resemble those of states – Maineford, Georgiabama, Nebrask, the Floridian Atolls, and the Californian Archipelago are all mentioned in the book. There’s a convenient map so you can see the world, located in the front of the book (by the way, all illustrations were done by Ben McSweeney).
The majority of the novel is set on New Britannia, with a brief excursion into East Carolina to investigate a disappearance. The other main location that is referenced is Nebrask, the place where the main Rithmatic fighting is taking place.
I’m going to mention tropes several times in this review because I think Sanderson is playing around with them. The book is set at a school where magic is taught, but because normal students and Rithmatists all attend this school, it’s not just a stand in for Hogwarts. It’s more like a regular school we might see in our world, except with magic as a legitimate curriculum. The other thing that sets this world apart from our own is the presence of springworks. This is a different twist on steampunk, and is a technology that can be found in money, machines, and animals.
The world that has been created for this book bucks the trend of traditional fantasy novels, and I for one am happy to see it. It’s very creative, while still being familiar.
CHARACTERS: There are really only five major characters in this book: Joel, his friend Melody, Professor Fitch, Inspector Harding, and Professor Nalizar.
- Joel is the main protagonist. He is 16, and very interested in the study of Rithmatics, despite not being one himself. He is the son of a cleaning lady at Armedius, and gets room, board, and tuition because of it. His father was a chalkmaker and died when Joel was eight, a major contributing factor in Joel missing the inception ceremony that year.
- Melody is Joel’s best friend. She’s a Rithmatist student, but not a very good one. She has a penchant for melodrama, and is going through remedial studies with Professor Fitch over the summer. She’s the only Rithmatist student that will give Joel the time of day, partially because she herself is a bit of an outcast as well.
- Professor Fitch is an academic that shows early on that he is better at the science than at the application of Rithmatics. He ends up losing his tenure in a duel early in the novel, then takes on Joel as a research assistant to help in figuring out the mysterious disappearances.
- Insector Harding is the police inspector that is assigned to the case of the missing Rithmatists. He is working closely with Professor Fitch to decipher the clues, and allows Joel to assist with the investigation.
- Professor Nalizar is a brash young professor that blows onto campus and takes Fitch’s tenure. He was a hero at Nebrask, but Joel is suspicious of him.
There are other minor characters, such as Florence and Exton (office clerks), Joel’s mother (a cleaning lady), Principal York, and various other professors and students. Then of course, there’s the Scribbler, the one who is attacking Rithmatists. It’s a fairly compact cast, which helps with keeping things straight. As I mentioned, there are tropes present throughout the book – red herrings, a clear Snape stand in, a boy and a girl who are both outcasts and seem to be snowballing towards some sort of eventual romantic involvement, etc. But Sanderson does some very interesting things with these tropes, and without spoiling things, I will say that I was surprised about a few resolutions.
One theme I usually expect from novels of this type (by which I mean high school based magical adventures) is a lot of angst. Crushes, drama, nobody understands me, etc. Sanderson packages all of the angst you usually see in an entire cast of characters into Melody, and makes it kind of a comic trait of hers. Everything is a tragedy. It’s another way he plays with the tropes, and I like it.
RITHMATICS: I can’t really go any further without talking about the Rithmatic lines. The science here is one of the main themes of the book. As I’ve mentioned, Rithmatics is the ability to command chalk drawings, and at the start of the book, there are four known lines with Rithmatic properties.
- The Line of Warding is a circle that is used for defense. It’s basically the wall you build around yourself that other chalk cannot penetrate. At least, not without some work. Circles vary in complexity, with more complex defenses being harder to penetrate. Circles can be constructed with bind points, and these are used to strengthen your defense and offense. Rithmatic duels are over when your opponent breaches your Line of Warding.
- The Line of Forbiddance is a straight line that cannot be crossed by anything. Not chalk, not human…nothing. From a defensive standpoint, they are very good, but you can’t get any of your offensive lines through them either. They can be useful as a wall while you set up your offense, then dismissed. They are limited in that they are straight lines, and are therefore finite, unlike the circle. Creating a box around yourself creates a strong defense, but no opportunities for offense, and are very weak at the corners.
- The Line of Making is also known as a chalkling. This is where you draw a creature that you can command to attack in various ways. The more complex the drawing, the more effective the chalkling, though of course it takes more time to draw complex forms.
- The Line of Vigor is the ammunition of the Rithmatist. It’s a wavy line that you aim at your opponent’s defenses or chalklings to break them apart. It’s kind of like a bullet. They are reflected by Lines of Forbiddance, and you can try to bounce them off various walls for effective hits.
Through the course of the book, more Rithmatic lines are discovered, but I’ll leave that to you to discover. To me, this is the most fascinating part of the book because it’s the part that most appeals to the gamer in me. With four lines, there’s a lot of strategy in trying to figure out how to use them. It’s a real-time experience as you react to your opponent’s moves and set up your own. Sanderson has set up a really cool system here, and I’ll talk a little bit more about my game related thoughts later.
STYLE: The Rithmatist is told in a third-person narrative, but it’s a narrative that mostly stays with Joel. It does stray from his perspective in a couple of places – one attack on a Rithmatist student is described in the very beginning of the book, and the perspective shifts to the professors watching the Melee near the end.
The book is actually pretty slow moving. There’s not a whole lot of action, mostly because it stays with Joel and he doesn’t get into any trouble until the Scribbler shows up near the end. It’s not an action book, it’s more of a mystery that spends a lot of time in world and mythology building. I never felt that it got boring, but this isn’t an action-packed extravaganza. Just a warning.
WOULD IT MAKE A GOOD MOVIE? Because of the slower pace of the story, probably not. I think it would be cool to see the chalk animations, but I don’t know that it would be compelling cinema.
WOULD IT MAKE A GOOD GAME? YES. This really is the main reason I wanted to talk about the book. Brandon Sanderson has developed all the rules for a strategic game already, it’s just going to take a designer to put them into practice. The obvious limitation for making it into an analog game is that it uses living chalk drawings, and it would be difficult to abstract that out. My own idea is a card game where players begin a duel by choosing their Line of Warding from one of the standard defenses. These can be represented on double sided boards, and players can choose secretly. Each defense will take a certain amount of time to construct, depending on its complexity, and that will determine player order – the quicker Line will be able to go first.
From there, it’s a time track game. Players play cards from their hand that represent the Lines of Forbiddance, Making, or Vigor. Each one takes a certain amount of time, and must be completed before it can be used. So there’s time to complete, time to command, time to dismiss, and time to attack included in the information about each Line. Each defense has a certain amount of hit points, and the first one to be breached loses the duel.
Now, obviously, I’m not a game designer, so this needs A LOT of work. In fact, I submitted this idea for a contest on the Ludology podcast a while ago, and had the dubious distinction of being singled out by Geoff Engelstein as submitting a “missed opportunity.” He wanted to see something with actual drawing, and that would be cool too. I’m really just trying to open a conversation about the IP, and I do hope some game designer somewhere takes it on because I think it would be a great game.
IS IT BUZZWORTHY? I think this is a very good book, though perhaps with only a limited appeal. I find the science behind Rithmatics to be fascinating, but others may be looking for more action in their fantasy novels. You also may be looking for more dragons and trolls and typical fantasy stuff, but you won’t find them here. For me, I never though chalk drawings could be so interesting, and I look forward to seeing where Sanderson takes the series in the future. Thanks for reading!