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Literature / The Rithmatist

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If only he could fly.

A killer is on the loose...

A 2013 fantasy novel—the first of a series—by Brandon Sanderson, The Rithmatist is one of Sanderson's 'side projects', a non-Cosmere novel for young adults. It features a magic system based on geometry and which uses chalk.

The story follows Joel, a 16-year-old student of an academy—in a seriously Clock Punk Alternate Universe America—that teaches this world's own brand of magic (Rithmatics), though he can't do it himself. He gets free tuition, as his mother and late father both worked for, or in association with, the school.

Joel, named for the author's eldest son for whom the book is also dedicated, is fascinated by the art of Rithmatics—with its lines of power and ability to bring chalk drawings to life—but only a few have the gift and he is not one of them. When Rithmatic students from Joel's school start disappearing, he is keen to investigate.

Since he's not a Rithmatist, Joel seems to be safe—but others are dying. Can he find the killer before the killer realizes just what a threat Joel really is?

You can read the prologue and the first five chapters here.

This series provides examples of:

  • Academy of Adventure: Armedius, and Added Alliterative Appeal all around.
  • Alliterative Name: Melody Muns, Charles Calloway.
  • Alternate History: The series is set on Earth... sort of. Magic exists, the action takes place in the United Isles of America (there are 60 of them, encompassing all of North America, including Canada and Mexico, and as per the name, most of the land is underwater,) and Korea has taken over Asia and Europe. (It's called JoSeun in-universe.)
  • Arbitrary Headcount Limit: For some reason, there are only a certain number of Rithmatists that can exist at any one time. New ones can't be created until the old ones die.
  • Arc Number: 9
  • Art Attacker: the entire basis of Rithmatics.
  • Blessed with Suck:
    • Melody sees her Rithmatic gift this way. See I Just Want to Be Normal, below.
    • Inverted with Exton, who thinks Rithmatists are spoiled, and got kicked off the Rithmatic course because he was so bad at it (though whether the opinion led to him being expelled or was formed because of him being expelled is certainly questionable).
    • Possibly a strange version in the case of Joel, who feels he should've been a Rithmatist, but is safe from the Scribbler because he isn't; being a non-Rithmatist is the 'gift' here.
    • Joel also has a remarkable gift for Rithmatics. Too bad it's useless because he can't use it properly, and is instead only a painful reminder of that fact.
  • Boarding School: Armedius Academy, and presumably the other Academies (there are 8 of them in the United Isles). Rithmatist students are required to attend year-round, and non-Rithmatists usually go home for the summer.
  • Capital Letters Are Magic: The Master, Rithmatics, The Rithmatist, Shadowblazes, Forgotten Shadows, and The Scribbler. (See also Spell My Name with a "The" below.)
  • Catchphrase: Melody's tragic, which is lampshaded multiple times and sometimes averted, with a certain instance being both.
  • Chalk Outline: The defenses drawn by the kidnapped acted as such, and we later find out that some of the chalklings actually are the kidnapped teenagers.
  • Chekhov's Gun: A full gold dollar (complete with tiny clockwork mechanism) that Melody gives to Joel "to buy something nice for his mom", which later saves him from wild chalkings.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Melody's practice with tracing Rithmatic patterns comes in handy when Joel joins her in the Melee, drawing out the lines for her to trace.
  • Clock Punk: In addition to Rithmatic magic, most technology is based on clockwork, with power provided by coiled springs. Including clockwork guns. Heck, there are even clockwork lawnmowers, clockwork horses, and the legal tender is clockwork coins. Also, Leonardo Da Vinci is a canon saint.
    • Implied to be justified late in the book when it's revealed that wild chalklings are scared of clockwork, so it makes sense that early settlers would use it for everything.
  • Clock Tower: On the cover and at the church. Clocks and their inner workings are a vital part of religion.
  • Clockworks Area: Very nearly.
  • Clockwork Creature: There's a fair bit of prose about beautiful clockwork horses, and an image of one on the other book cover.
  • Darker and Edgier: Than kiddie counterpart ChalkZone, Nickelodeon's sugary-sweet Turn of the Millennium cartoon.
  • Death World: Not the whole world, but Nebrask is described this way: an entire isle overrun by wild chalklings, whose base is at a great tower that used to move from place to place. All Rithmatists get conscripted to fight at Nebrask for ten years, in an ongoing holding action to keep them from reaching the other isles. The backstory implies that the entire United Isles used to be overrun (or at least inhabited) by wild chalklings before the invention of Rithmatics gave humans a way to fight back.
  • Demonic Possession: The apparent tactic of the Forgotten Shadows.
  • Different World, Different Movies: The Korean (JoSeun) conquest of Europe means that European cuisines, such as Italian, have been considerably influenced by East Asian ideas. Joel, of course, doesn't realize how strange it sounds to the reader.
  • Empowered Badass Normal: Harding, when he's possessed by the Forgotten.
  • Everybody Lives: Not only do all the main characters survive, but all the missing and "dead" students were actually transformed into chalkings, and reverted to normal once the Scribbler is defeated.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: More like, "chaos cannot comprehend order," but the same basic principle is used here, both played straight and subverted. Wild chalklings fear clocks because humans manage to take something inherently meaningless—the division of time into arbitrary lengths like hours, minutes and seconds—and turn it into orderly laws. But Nalizar does not fear clocks, because he's infiltrated human society and studied the system, and learned to understand the principles involved.
    • There's some Nothing Is Scarier involved on all chalklings behalves with fear of the unknown. When chalklings are confused, they shy away—like they did with Joel's chalk defenses. Wild chalklings especially behave as such; because they're not man-made, they're confused by technology such as clockwork. They soon recoil after having seen it before, though, so exposed mechanics aren't as effective after the first time.
  • Fanboy: Joel obsesses over Rithmatics, and is actually better at both drawing Rithmatic figures and strategizing than most of the students. It's a shame he doesn't actually have any Rithmatic power himself... Becomes an Ascended Fanboy when he gets to compete in the Melee, and wins.
  • Functional Magic: It's Brandon Sanderson, after all. According to Word of God, Rithmatics is essentially a magical game of StarCraft, played with magically-animated figures drawn in chalk. Except that it's possible for the chalk figures to affect the real world, and feral ones ("wild chalklings") exist that can kill people.
  • Gaslamp Fantasy: With clockwork gas lamps.
  • Geometric Magic: Rithmatics works this way, particularly the defensive side. Lines of Warding are based on circles and polygons, and any geometric imperfections in your drawing weakens the strength of the resulting magical effect.
    • Chalklings, on the other hand, seem to work more on the artistic quality of the design. Joel finds this baffling.
  • Good is Not Nice: Zigzagged with Professor Nalizar. If there was such a trope as The Snape, Nalizar would be a perfect example. Arrogant, cruel, very powerful at his magic, always suspiciously seeming to be involved in the bad things going on, and yet held to be above suspicion by the authority figures. In the climax, Joel catches him red-handed, mixed up deeply in the attack on the school, and douses him with chalk-destroying acid, only to find that the real bad guy is the federal investigator, and Nalizar was trying to fight him off! Climactic chalk-battles ensue, and in the end, he's defeated, and Joel has to admit that Nalizar really was a hero and a good guy after all... only to discover, a few days later, that there were two villains, and Nalizar (actually something else possessing the dead professor's body) helped take down his compatriot so as to establish himself as above suspicion in the very organization that is training the people who will be fighting the bad guys, so he really was Evil All Along!
  • I Just Want to Be Normal: Melody resents her Rithmatic powers, which she never asked for, because it means she's essentially been conscripted to train to fight the wild chalklings, and she doesn't actually have much skill at drawing defenses or strategizing. In this, she acts as a perfect Foil for Joel.
  • I Just Want to Be Special: Joel is incredibly good at drawing Rithmatic defenses and working out dueling strategies... but he doesn't actually have the power to bring chalk figures to life.
  • I'm Standing Right Here: When Melody asks to switch jobs with Joel; she'll do the clerical work if he draws lines for her. In other words, cheat.
    Joel: Professor Fitch is sitting right there. He can probably hear everything you're saying.
    Fitch: Sure can.
  • In Spite of a Nail: Used due to this world running on Rule of Cool (see below); despite the very different world, many place names are still the same, at one point the book even hanging a lampshade on the fact that Native American names are used for several of the Isles despite the fact that the Native Americans were driven out by the chalklings before first European contact.
  • Intrigued by Humanity: The real Professor Nalizar has been Dead All Along with something using his body to observe humanity for...reasons. And probably not benign ones.
  • Living Drawing: Chalklings behave like living creatures.
  • Loophole Abuse: There's no rule that says you must be a Rithmatist to participate in the Melee, only that you must be the student of a Rithmatic professor. Or, apparently, under the supervision of one for your summer elective as Joel is Fitch's research assistant. Exton says this counts, though. Nor is there a rule against two contestants on the same team sharing a circle, it's just never done because it's tactically disadvantageous. Unless of course you have one contestant who has Rithmatic power but no skill at geometry and tactics, and one who is a genius at geometry and tactics but has no Rithmatic power.
  • The Master: Perhaps in name only, but there are more installments to come.
  • Missed the Call: Joel could have been a Rithmatist, but something got in the way of the process both times.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: Rithmatics is essentially idle doodling turned into a highly structured magic system. It is powerful and important, but many scenes seem almost designed to highlight how silly it looks—most notably, the climactic faceoff between Professor Fitch and the Scribbler, where the narration describes in the most epic and dramatic way possible how the former... kneels down on the floor and starts drawing on it with pieces of chalk. One in each hand.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: King Gregory III may be a stand-in for George III.
  • Offer Void in Nebraska: Macmillan online ran a contest to win an advanced copy of the book, Rithmatist's chalk (Trent's formula?), and a sling rucksack. Despite being a British company, though, the contest only ran in the US.
  • Our Monsters Are Weird: Two-dimensional chalk outlines that can eat people.
  • Paper People: The chalklings are all two-dimensional and can only travel over adjacent surfaces, i.e. from floor to wall to ceiling (hence the image caption). When Joel is in the Chamber of Inception, he sees one standing and notes that if you turn to look from the side, it practically disappears.
  • Perpetual Poverty: Joel's mother works herself half to death, yet there's never any extra money because it all goes toward paying off his father's debts. Joel has been holding onto a single penny that he got for his birthday last year.
  • Religion is Magic: Only those who have been inducted into the Monarchichal Church have a chance to become Rithmatists.
  • Rule of Cool: In an interview, Sanderson explained that "[he] replaced the United States with the United Isles, turning the country into an archipelago. [He] shrank the planet, and [he] did really weird things to the history of the world because [he] thought it would be fun. For example, [he] let Korea conquer the world, because [he's] a fan of Korean history." Adding, "It's not like I'm sitting down and saying, 'What is plausible?' I'm sitting down and saying, 'What is awesome?' Then I write a story in which that awesomeness can shine."
  • Spell My Name with a "The": The Rithmatist, The Scribbler.
  • Switching P.O.V.: The book is told almost entirely from Joel's point of view except for some of last chapters which are from Professor Fitch's.
  • Unskilled, but Strong/Weak, but Skilled: Several non-traditional examples that mix the two.
    • Joel has one of the best minds for geometry and mathematics, and can correctly identify even minute flaws in a shape by eye...but he's not a Rithmatist, so none of that matters. Until the end, when he draws out the lines, and Melody traces over them.
    • Fitch is one of the best Rithmatists in the world, but he gets so shaky during fights that he can barely draw a straight line. Unless his students are in danger.
    • Nalizar has an extremely aggressive and offensive style, which makes him a beast in duels but wouldn't be very useful against swarms of wild chalklings. Which is the point. He's a Forgotten Shadow infiltrating human society, trying to train the next generation of Rithmatists with a style that looks good, but is useless in Nebrask. This should have been noticed before, really: if he was a such a hero in Nebrask how come he's an offensive duelist, and not a defensive one?
    • Melody can draw breathtakingly beautiful chalklings, which means they are extremely powerful, but she can barely produce a recognizable circle, which is the basis of all defense. Joel helps her solve this problem by drawing the defensive lines himself, and then having her write over them.
  • Villain Respect: Near the end of the novel, Nalizar actually apologises to Joel for not initially seeing him as the Worthy Opponent he has proven himself to be. He then takes it a step further in the final scene—as he sees Joel and Melody destroy another of his plans, he watches in what almost seems like a reversed, villainous form of Admiring the Abomination.
    Nalizar: It's beautiful. I have to watch those two carefully. They are amazing.
  • Wham Episode: As usual for a Sanderson book, the last few chapters are one Wham after another.
  • Wind-Up Key: It's what nearly all every-day item in this world needs.