The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson
The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson (Tor, 2013) is a once-more-into-the-breach moment for me as I unwillingly read through a young adult title. This time, I’ve actually paid out my own coin in support of an author I like. As one might predict, the experience proved an unhappy balance between admiration for the inventiveness of the plot and endless horror at the ghastly way it’s written down for the YA market. Frankly, it’s deeply patronising to write like this when the target audience is presumably teenage. I refuse to believe the education services in English speaking countries have so dumbed down their children’s reading ages that the current crop of youngsters cannot yet be trusted with books written with adult sensibilities in mind. This book is permeated by endless drivel as our young man vaguely struggles towards something approximating intelligence while surrounded by adults as thick as two short planks.
So here we have a young boy who was unfortunately denied the test to see whether he had magical abilities because the church wall was leaking water and needed repair. Oh dear. It’s impossible to make a more clichéd start. A young boy, obviously destined to become the greatest magician of his age, is denied the formal training so, with the early help of his father (who mysteriously dies) and then something inside driving him as he’s given a free scholarship in a top school, he develops and hones his general understanding and skills. At last, he manages to come under the wing of Dumble. . . and meets up with highly compatible girl (his Hermione). This is the catalyst he needs to start to bring his magical abilities up to “slightly better than average”. No doubt as the series continues, he’ll become the wunderkind of his generation (traditionally someone under the age of eighteen) and save the world for the Muggles. This first exciting episode sees him showing the academic staff and the police how to investigate crimes of a magical nature, leading to a big fight with the first tier bad guy which he, his Hermione and the Professor manage to win. Yes, it really is that bad.
So why I am bothering to read such a book? The answer lies in the plot and the rather ingenious diagrams and illustrations by Ben McSweeney. To understand the idea, we need to go back to Victorian times and the novel Flatland by Edwin Abbott. This postulated a world in two dimensions — the men are polygons and the women line-segments — which is visited by a sphere. As you can imagine the two- and three-dimensional characters have great difficulty in perceiving each other. Rudy Rucker and others of a more mathematical or scientific bent have played with the idea. For example, if we postulate life as possible on a single sheet of paper, drawing a circle around a creature on the paper would represent a prison because, in that dimension, the creature can’t get out of the circle. Escape would only be possible by boring through the line forming the circle or moving in the third dimension and jumping over the line. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first full-length novel creating a fantasy adventure out of the idea (Spaceland by Rudy Rucker doesn’t count because that’s a commercial invasion from the fourth dimension). Essentially what we have is the two-dimensional beings breaking through into the three-dimensional world with hostile intent. To defend the world as we know it, some humans have developed the ability to draw lines and shapes in chalk that can interact with the two-dimensional creatures. These “magicians” work together with the military to corral the wild creatures in the area immediately around the point where they emerge into our dimension. Obviously there are casualties and the “magicians” are allowed to retire after a number of years in service. That’s the point of the school where our young sprog studies. It’s one of the places training the next generation of “magicians”. His failure to be tested excludes him from that training but, as is required in YA plots, he’s got the gift and can do it anyway.
More than any other feature of this book, it’s the interaction between the detailed work of the author and the interpretive work of the artist that save it from oblivion for an adult reader. Since the magic system postulated here depends on the ability of the “magicians” to draw both geometrically accurate shapes and interesting creatures to fight and defend those shapes, the visual representation of this skill is essential to an understanding of the magic. Frankly, there’s no-one better than designing magic systems around than Brandon Sanderson and this work with Ben McSweeney is an outstanding collaboration. It’s just a tragedy the result is then buried in this YA vehicle. This would make a sensationally good book if written for adults. As it stands, The Rithmatist is excruciating to read to get at the plot.