Monday, July 1, 2013

REVIEW: The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson

The Rithmatist (Rithmatist #1) The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Great fantasy. It was one of the best Young Adult fantasies I have read this year. Unfortunately, a couple of things kept me from rating the book as high as I would have liked.

My Dislikes

+ the world building

First, the world building could have been conveyed more clearly. At first I thought it was complete fantasy, but once I realized it was in an alternative history setting, I thought it was in England, i.e. UK. It was not until the middle of the book that I finally goddamn realized it was actually New England, i.e. America. In another instance, when our heroes had to travel outside of the Academy to investigate another kidnapping and homicide, I could not grasp the train-like transportation they took.

Also ambiguous was the political structure. I still have no idea what a knight-senator is exactly. I thought it was the equivalent of an American senator but once they started talking about the incident being a potential international issue I began to think that maybe a knight-senator was an ambassador of some sort, maybe England.

Then, there was the Rithmatic “non-religion.” The plot glossed over religious conflicts, probably because it didn't want to bog down the pacing. I was okay with that, but I was not okay with how murky the revelation of the Rithmatic secrets remained. The ritual to become a Rithmatist, talk about bizarre! I did not know what to make of it. I was also confused by how Master was God but also used in reference to the Rithmatist priests, i.e. they called the priest Master so-and-so.

On a different issue of the world building, I did not like how the bad guys were complete bad guys with no redeemable traits. For one thing, they lived there first. It was the same old issue: natives versus colonists. What the bad guys did was wrong, very wrong, human sacrifices and genocide, but I understood the reasons that drove them to an evil extreme. I wish the sides were not made out to be black and white; the human characters had their faults too.

+ the hero

Second, the hero chafed my nerves with his passion for Rithmatics. I really liked that he had great ambitions, but I did not like the methods he used to accomplish them. Joel was a poor student on a full scholarship ride in a prestigious university; the fact that he would jeopardize this huge privilege by not doing his homework, relying on exams to pass, and worst of all, intentionally failing a class just to gamble on a chance to get into a remedial Rithmatist class astounded me. Not only was it majorly reckless, it was a kick in the suspension-of-disbelief’s knee that Joel was a poor student.

I did not like how he was so into his passion that he showed little understanding for why people did not share his passion, why one in particular, Melody, would not want to be a Rithmatist, hate it in fact. He showed so little understanding of people and overall the world, that he came off as an oblivious geek stereotype.

+ the ending

Third, the biggest issue I had was with the ending because it was two steps short of satisfactory. At the last minute, the ending revealed another villain and another meter of the apocalyptic conspiracy that could have been saved for book 2. Instead, the ending cut in the celebratory mood and left a small cliffhanger. Grrr, cliffhanger; I shake my fist at you.

Not only that, the ending also highlighted a plot weak spot that started cracking in the middle of the book. Readers learn that the villains could not distinguish between a Rithmatist and a non-Rithmatist and that was why they tried to kill Joel because they thought he was one. How could people who successfully assumed the identities of the people they killed and possessed to the point no one knew they were fakes not correctly identify their enemies? Yeesh. This somewhat undermined the bad guys’ role as an infiltrator.

My Likes

+ the world building

The world building had issues but I liked how parts of it was contradictorily vivid and how overall every part brought a high level of complexity. Though it did not outright say what time period the book was set in, the social issues strongly suggested to me it was a couple years after the turn of the century. Women's rights, class struggles, racial tension; though some were more in the background than the others, the nods to the social issues delighted me. I liked how the consequences of the events our heroes were embroiled in were appropriately far-reaching.

I loved how America was made as a nation of islands. It was a very intriguing and creative concept. I liked how one of the superpowers was Jo Seun, a superpower that conquered half of the Old World, was a Korean inspiration. It was different from the usual Chinese and Japanese inspirations. Point for Asian influence and another point for a lesser-used Asian culture.

One of the best things about the book was the magic system, Rithmatics. While I thought the book explained Rithmatics well in the text, the book had illustrations to clarify any potential confusion. In addition to the in-text illustrations, a page of illustration preceded every chapter, and each page explained a concept in-depth. I loved how the book partially served as a spell book. Rithmatics was well thought out and explained. It was one of the most creative magic systems I have read.

+ the characters

I did take issue with the hero but I warmed up to him by the end. When Professor Fitch called Joel out for his act of bullying against Melody (I loved that bullying was immediately confronted), I think that was when Joel’s character growth started. In a later event, when Joel showed Melody his late father's workshop... it suddenly occurred to me that Joel's obsession for Rithmatics may have been a form of grieving. The guy was not ready to fully face the reality that his father was gone which explained his obliviousness and recklessness. No wonder he jarred in his role as a poor student because grief made him act uncharacteristically. I was happy when he finally got in touch with reality and realized that his mom was working her ass off to pay debts, his horrible-horrible mistake in risking his education, the politics of being a Rithmatist, etc.

As for the other characters, I did not take issue with any of them. Professor Fitch was pitiful but not frustratingly so. It would have been too easy for the plot to make him as one of its victims, but I was glad he was not pigeonholed into the role.

Melody, I was very amused by her melodrama; everything bad or remotely unpleasant was “tragic” with her. As Joel’s inevitable sidekick, she balanced him out with her brightness to his seriousness. Her unicorn chalkings ruled! Not only did she provide some comic relief, but she provided instances of delicious character growth, both hers and Joel’s.

In Conclusion

I rate The Rithmatist 3-stars for I liked it. I devoured the book less than a handful of hours. It was my first Fantasy by this author and I could plainly see why some readers would consider him as a master writer of Fantasy.

Buddy read and discussion with Georgina.

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