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Like all Brandon Sanderson novels, The Rithmatist features an innovative magic system. The story is set in a school for young magicians, or “rithmatists”, but there are no spells and wands in sight. Instead, the implement of magical choice is a lowly piece of chalk.
With a piece of chalk, the trained rithmatist can draw all kinds of defensive and attacking circle patterns. As the name implies, these depend on good mathematical skills. But there’s also room for creativity – chalk monsters, called chalklings, can also be drawn and sent to attack the opposing rithmatist’s defences.
The budding rithmatists practise their skills in duels while at school, so they’ll be ready to use them in earnest when they graduate. There’s a war going on against wild chalklings, and the elite schooling and a life of privilege are to prepare the next generation of warriors for this war.
Our young hero, Joel, knows more about the theory of rithmatics than most of the rithmatics students, but sadly, though his chalk drawings are near-perfect, he lacks the vital spark that brings them to life. He receives mundane tuition at the pretigious Armedius Academy as a charity case, and does his utmost to sneak into rithmatics lectures, as he’s desperate to find another way into the longed-for world of the rithmatists.
When rithmatics students start to disappear in frightening circumstances, it seems he might get a chance at last. The principal assigns him to assist Professor Fitch and the police in the investigations, where Joel’s quick mind and wealth of rithmatic knowledge soon prove useful.
But it also makes him a target, and Joel soon finds there’s a lot more to rithmatics than he realised, and that the war is not so distant after all. With the help of Professor Fitch and Melody, a struggling rithmatics student who nevertheless draws very powerful chalklings, he must solve the mystery before he and Melody become the next disappearances.
It was a fun read. It’s called Young Adult, but it feels almost closer to middle grade, despite the word count and vocabulary not being middle grade level. Perhaps because, despite the sometimes dark subject matter, it never feels particularly dark? Maybe I was too distracted by my enjoyment of rithmatics, but the tone felt light, as if Joel was never in any real danger.
It’s a fairly straightforward plot, without the intricacies of a massive tome like Words of Radiance. The door is left well and truly open for a sequel, but there’s a nice resolution of the immediate story, so it’s not a cliffhanger.
Very selfishly, I wish Sanderson would stop writing everything else and just focus on the Stormlight Archive! – but if and when there is a sequel to The Rithmatist, I’ll certainly be reading it, to find out if Joel’s dreams ever do come true. An engaging fantasy, suitable for ages ten and up.
Okay, suppose you’re looking for a new urban fantasy to read. Would this blurb entice you to pick up the book?
“Whoever said ‘what you don’t know can’t hurt you’ had never been in courier Kate Donohue’s shoes. She can’t remember anything from a special rush job this afternoon, but whatever happened must have been pretty wild, because now there’s a werewolf in her kitchen trying to kill her. And he’s just the first in line. Suddenly Kate’s running for her life, but if she doesn’t remember what happened soon, more than her life will be at stake.”
In case you haven’t guessed, I’m working on the blurb for my upcoming book, previously only known by the highly imaginative title “Dragon novel”, but now tentatively titled Twiceborn.
I feel as if that last sentence needs work. It seems to kind of fade off, but I don’t want to give too much away. Blurb-writing is harder than it looks!
Here’s another, slightly longer version, with a different last sentence:
“Whoever said ‘what you don’t know can’t hurt you’ had never been in courier Kate Donohue’s shoes. She can’t remember anything from a special rush job this afternoon, but whatever happened must have been pretty wild, because now there’s a werewolf in her kitchen trying to kill her. And he’s just the first in line.
It’s a nasty introduction to the hidden world of the shifters, but the news gets worse. It’s a world at war, and Kate will be a casualty if she can’t remember what happened – but first she has to live through the night.”
Any better? Worse? What do you think?
Today in A Fantasy Alphabet we arrive at the letter F. F is for Fire, by Kristin Cashore.
I read this when it first came out, and remember being lukewarm about it, but on rereading it for this series, I think that was because I wanted more of the story we got in Graceling, her first book, whereas Fire heads off in a different direction with a new set of characters, though rather loosely set in the same world.
On rereading for this series I see much to admire in the story of Fire, a human “monster” in a world where brightly coloured versions of normal creatures are insanely seductive to others, and are known as monsters. Fire’s allure is so extreme she can’t even look at herself in a mirror, as she too feels the pull of her unnatural beauty.
Everyone wants to either kill her or kiss her, and her whole life revolves around dealing with other people’s perception of her and trying to mitigate the danger to herself and others. She is seen, particularly by men, as a thing to be possessed, not a person. Hers is an extreme case, but I can see parallels with the life of even ordinary women, ever-conscious of the male gaze and its effects, how society insists on defining women as women first and anything else second, whatever their achievements.
Fire’s case could be read as an interesting metaphor for that, but this is only one of the issues Fire must grapple with. As a monster, she also has powers to coerce people to do her will, which her dead monster father used to devastating effect. Fire is terrified she too will turn out like him, a “monster” in the true sense of the word.
When Fire is forced to travel to the capital city she becomes enmeshed in the affairs of the royal family, who are working desperately to stave off civil war. The weak young king is drawn in by her beauty; his brother Prince Brigan at first despises Fire, because of the association with her father, who aided and abetted the previous king in his atrocities. Yet Fire feels a growing attraction to the prince.
But there’s little time to consider romance, whatever her heart tells her, with spies to interrogate, a civil war to avert, and many personal revelations. Fire learns that little in life is black and white, as she grapples with difficult moral questions. Is it right to use her powers, which might be considered evil (and were often used for evil by her father) if she uses them for good, to try to save the kingdom? Or does that still make her a monster? How far can she go and still live with herself? On the other hand, can she live with herself if she doesn’t use her unique abilities to save lives and help the people she cares about? She’s also concerned with questions of free will and destiny. Does her genetic heritage define her, or can she be her own person by making different decisions to those her father made? Can she atone for her father’s atrocities by her own sacrifice?
If I’m making it sound as if the book is all about debates on morality, don’t worry, there’s plenty of plot too, and some great characters. In fact the only character I could complain about is Brigan himself – he’s just too damned perfect. I love him – but the guy has absolutely no flaws, unlike nearly everyone else in the cast, who are more nuanced and believably human.
But the fact that the leading man is so wonderful is hardly a turn-off, and there’s plenty of crunchy philosophical questions to consider if a fast-moving plot isn’t enough of an enticement. I’m going to give it to my daughters to read. A very thoughtful book.
One of the best things about being a parent is getting to embarrass your children. Think of it as payback for all the scenes they caused as toddlers, or the times they repeated something they shouldn’t have, or behaved more like small ferocious animals than human beings.
I felt the urge to crochet the other night, and finished off a beanie I started last winter.
I loved the subtle colour changes of the yarn, but felt it needed something more, so I dug through my bag of flower experiments and came up with this pink and blue one. Good match, huh?
So I sewed it on, then went prancing round the house modelling my new beanie for everyone. I may have gushed a little about my pretty flower.
Drama Duck rolled her eyes in loving scorn.
“Sometimes you act just like a five-year-old,” she said.
Note to self: Must wear beanie in front of all her friends.
On Emma’s fifth birthday, she and Mama picnic in the meadow near the village. It’s an idyllic scene, surrounded by wildflowers and dancing fireflies – until Emma strays too close to the woods and earns a smack and a stern warning. No one goes near the woods. Young girls who do have been known to disappear in the middle of the night.
But when Mama falls asleep, the fireflies lead Emma to a strange young boy making music in the woods.
By the time Emma turns seventeen she thinks the boy in the woods was just a dream. Now she’s more concerned with the very real dilemma facing her. Everyone must marry at eighteen or face a life of poverty and being shunned by the villagers. For the girls of this sexist society, it’s marriage or nothing: “Almost every adult in the village is referred to by their job, and for the women that means ‘wife’.” The problem is, there are only two boys turning eighteen, and four girls, and all the girls have more money and social standing than Emma and her widowed mother.
The village is well and truly under the thumb of the mayor, whose son is one of the available boys. The mayor is one of those people who use the rules of their religion as a weapon to control everyone else, instead of embracing its actual teachings as the compassionate and principled Emma does.
Two such opposite people are bound to clash, and at first it seems as though the mayor has all the advantages on his side. But Emma has love – the love of her mother, of her outcast friend, even of the mysterious boy in the woods – and love can be a great force for good.
This isn’t an epic story with great magics and kingdoms at stake, but Langley will have you caring very much for the fate of Emma and her little world. Her characters are real people facing difficult decisions. Some of Emma’s choices are particularly hard as they affect not only her own life but the fate of her beloved mother, and I really like that about this book. Parents are often conveniently absent in YA books, leaving the heroine free to pursue whatever excitement and/or romance she wishes without consequence, which is very unrealistic.
There is a romance, but it’s only one aspect of Emma’s life, not the be-all and end-all. Langley shows that other kinds of love are just as important, and that it’s the ties that bind us to our families, the promises we make to our friends, that really make us who we are. Emma is a strong character and a great role model. She’s tempted by the easy path, she’s almost seduced by magic, but in the end she remains true to her values and finds a way forward not only for herself but her whole community.
And what is in the woods? Perhaps not what you might expect – or, if you’ve read some of the older, darker fairy tales, perhaps it is. I was very glad there were no easy answers waiting for Emma under the trees. I enjoyed The Edge of the Woods very much. It has a very likeable heroine, a little magic and a lot of heart.
The Carnivore was sorting washing when a horrified look came over his face. Horrified and really guilty.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I put your running shorts through the dryer and they’ve shrunk. I thought they’d be okay! I’m really sorry – I’ll buy you another pair.”
The Carnivore has a bit of a history of poor choices with laundry, like the time he put my handknit top in the washing machine and the sleeve unravelled all around the agitator. Or the time he washed a brand-new red T-shirt with the whites, and the “whites” all became “pinks”.
Mind you, I’m not complaining. I have a husband who helps out a lot with housework, which is great. The occasional ruined item of clothing is a small price to pay. I’m merely telling you this to set the scene.
His apologetic guilt was so amusing I was very tempted to let him suffer, but I’m not that heartless.
“It’s all right, honey. Those aren’t mine.”
Drama Duck has a pair of running shorts just like mine – only a lot smaller!
He was one relieved husband.
As I shuffled down the road this morning, breathing so hard I sounded like an obscene phone call, it occurred to me that running has a lot in common with writing.
1. I’d much rather stay in bed where it’s warm than get up and do it.
2. I look at how far there is to go and feel certain I’ll never make it all the way to the end.
3. Doing it is painful, but I want to keep going because the virtuous glow of achievement I get afterwards brightens my whole day.
4. Doing it is painful – except for those rare moments that make it all worthwhile, when I feel like I’m flying and it’s so effortless I think I could go on forever. (In running, these are the downhill bits. In writing it’s generally the last few scenes as you race to the end of the book.)
5. I know that if I persist I’ll gradually improve, so that there’ll be more flying and less painful staggering. At least I hope so!
At the moment my running prowess would probably get me a part as a zombie extra in a movie. Anyone got any good running tips for me? (Other than: don’t.)
Hair is a big deal for a teenage girl. They spend a lot of time fiddling with it, twirling it, styling it, colouring it, sucking the ends of it – and the longer the better. I think they all have a secret longing to be Rapunzel.
When Drama Duck was in Year 7 and she brought home her school photos, she had pictures of 210 girls in her year. Only one of them had short hair. It really brought home to me what a huge part of their self-image long hair is for most girls.
So when Drama Duck announced her intention to shave her beautiful hair off in support of the Leukaemia Foundation as part of the World’s Greatest Shave this year, I was a little alarmed. I’d watched her spend fifteen minutes in the bathroom every morning styling it just so. I knew how long (how very long!) it had taken her to achieve its current length. And you can’t exactly change your mind if you don’t like how it looks once you’ve shaved it off.
She had such pretty hair too!
I asked her so many times if she was really sure she wanted to do it she thought I didn’t approve. It wasn’t that at all. It’s a great cause, and if she really wanted to do it, well, it’s her hair, right? Who am I to say no? But I wanted her to be absolutely certain before taking such a big step. I was worried she’d regret it. Like any mother, I was trying to protect my baby from pain.
Well – as so often happens – I was worrying for nothing. She loves her new short hair, and it really suits her. She has such a pretty, delicate-featured face, which really shines now that mass of hair is no longer overshadowing it. Before, her hair was her defining feature; now you can really see her.
As for the fundraising? She did a great job – over $1200 raised for the Leukaemia Foundation.
And that makes her short hair even more beautiful.
Today in my book review series A Fantasy Alphabet I’m looking at Elantris, the debut novel from prolific writer Brandon Sanderson.
It’s hard to believe this book was only published in 2005. Brandon Sanderson has become a huge name in the sff world since then, deservedly so in my opinion, and he has more books out than many authors who started years before him. It feels like he’s been around forever.
And some of those suckers are big – his latest, Words of Radiance, comes in at a whopping 400,000 words. So he’s certainly worked hard to get to where he is today at the top of the sff heap.
Elantris is a lot smaller than that, though still fairly meaty for a first novel, and it shows the great flair for worldbuilding that has been a large part of his success. Not that he’s not good at everything else – his plots are interesting, his characters well-realised – but it’s his worldbuilding that really stands out for me. You always know you’re going to get a really cool magic system or society in a Sanderson world, and Elantris is no exception.
The city of Elantris was once a place of wonder, inhabited by silver-skinned, god-like people. These people had once been ordinary folk, but they’d all been blessed by a random transformation that came upon them in the night. New Elantrians gave up their old life and moved to Elantris to live in bliss for eternity.
But ten years ago something went wrong, and the transformation became a sickly curse, and the power of Elantris was lost. At the beginning of the novel, Raoden, the crown prince of the neighbouring city, suddenly becomes an Elantrian, and is hurled into what is now the nightmare world of Elantris, where people exist in eternal suffering and eventually go mad.
Talk about bad timing – his fiancee, a foreign princess who he’s never met but is kind of half in love with already from their correspondence, arrives for their wedding a few days later. Poor Sarene is met with the news that her fiancee is dead, but the betrothal is nevertheless binding, so now she’s a widow in a strange city.
And it is a strange city – Raoden’s father’s only been on the throne ten years, since the revolution when Elantris fell. No one’s happy, especially not with a neighbouring country threatening war or at the least forcible conversion to their dark god. The priest Hrathen arrives to try to convert the city, and at first he seems the stereotypical “evil priest” bad guy, but there’s a lot more to him than that.
These three characters – Raoden, Sarene and Hrathen – share the narration, and the way their stories wind around each other and ultimately collide is very well done. There’s a lot of depth to the characters, particularly Hrathen, who is the most nuanced antagonist I’ve seen in a long time. He’s not really a “bad guy” at all, just a person with a different agenda to the two protagonists.
Raoden seeks answers to his personal problems and those of his country in researching the ancient magic system of Elantris. In the process he discovers what caused the problem ten years ago and how to fix it, in a race-against-time climax that occurs as his country is invaded. The answer is very clever.
There’s a lot happening in this book – magic, romance, human relationships and their dilemmas, humour, drama and mystery – and it makes for a satisfying read. It’s like a whole three-volume fantasy saga packed into one exciting volume. If you haven’t read Sanderson before, this is a good place to start. Highly recommended.