Brandon Sanderson, the New York Times-bestselling author of Mistborn and Warbreaker, excels at building complicated fantasy worlds and intricate magic systems. Unfortunately his young-adult novel, The Rithmatist, is so bogged down in stale genre clichés that his knack for developing settings can’t save it.
The story follows Joel, a teenager who wants desperately to be a Rithmatist, someone capable of using chalk drawings to create impassable barriers or conjure creatures called chalklings that can defend humans and attack their enemies. But despite all his knowledge and talent with the drawings, he doesn’t have the magical gift to give them power.
Joel attends a school typically reserved for the children of the rich and powerful or for Rithmatists-in-training, but he is neither of those things, and was admitted because his father died while working on the faculty. His lack of clout, wealth, or magical power leaves him a perpetual outcast at this fusion between Hogwarts and an elite prep school.
After a lot of moping about how poor and friendless and un-magical he is, Joel finds himself investigating the mysterious disappearance of several Rithmatist students. He’s joined in his quest by a kindly professor, an overexuberant investigator, and Melody, a Rithmatist student who has been ostracized for her inability to draw the geometric patterns at which Joel excels, even though she has incredible artistic talent.
By making magic an integrated part of the world rather than a hidden facet, Sanderson is able to seriously contemplate the societal role that it would actually have in a way most authors avoid. He’s designed a fascinating alternate version of our world where North America is a massive archipelago connected by springwork-powered trains, the Aztecs still rule South America, and Korea has conquered all of Europe. His pages are flavored with how those changes could affect not just geopolitics but everyday things like food and dress.
Yet it all seems like new scenery for a stage playing the same YA story of empowered teens solving problems that the more powerful adults around them seem helpless against while finding friendship, hints of romance, and new truths about the world around them. Even the characters are well-worn archetypes, like the extremely Snape-like Professor Nalizar, who Joel immediately suspects is behind the crimes for no reason other than the fact that he doesn’t like the guy much.
Predictably, The Rithmatist is meant to be the first in a series. Like Harry Potter, it’s possible that these books will mature with time, but that will take a newfound tendency on Sanderson’s part to go beyond tracing over established YA works and draw characters and a plot that come to life.