Circle in the Chalk

RithmatistTriangles within circles within squares – it’s an indecipherable puzzle. But these aren’t crop circles; they’re chalk circles. The magic system in The Rithmatist is based on geometric lines written in chalk. It comes as no surprise that Brandon Sanderson is a whiz at inventing magic systems, but it’s refreshing to see a protagonist who’s a whiz at that system without any magical ability. Joel is a 16-year-old student at Armedius Academy, a school that instructs both traditional and magical students. Joel is neither a Rithmatist nor a traditional prep school student; as the son of a humble chalkmaker and a cleaning woman, he’s an aberration at a place like Armedius. He doesn’t fit in with either group, although he longs to be a Rithmatist. He’s memorized all the complicated variations of the defensive chalk circles they use in duels, as well as the history of the duelists who used them successfully. He’s a student of the game without the specialized skill set needed to participate. But when a mysterious attacker begins abducting the most skilled Rithmatists at Armedius, it’s up to Joel’s understanding of the magic, not his innate ability to use it, that unravels the secret plot.

I’m an unabashed fan of Sanderson, and there is a lot to love about this book. It’s a fantastic reworking of the magic school concept, with academics applying the magic to their advantage. Joel is an outsider who finds his way into the inner circle. The alternate history is great, with the United Isles of America bearing new names. Armedius is one of eight academies that teach Rithmatics, and it’s located in Jamestown on the Isle of New Britannia. Europe was conquered by the JoSeun Empire, and the exiled monarch of England is the one who discovered Rithmatics. That ties magic to the Monarchical Church, building another layer to the clockwork culture that developed in America. Joel is surrounded by a colorful cast of characters, and his interactions with them are perfect. The illustrations of the chalkings – chalk creatures drawn to assist in the duels – are delightful, and the diagrams of the different defenses are highly detailed. The Rithmatist is also Sanderson’s most personal book to date, with a main character who shares a name with the book’s dedicatee, and a dark menace located in Nebrask, the state based on Sanderson’s home state of Nebraska. The Rithmatist is a sheer delight for Sanderson fans like me, and would serve as an excellent introduction to a younger generation of new fans.


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