THE RITHMATIST by Brandon Sanderson

THE RITHMATIST isn’t a great novel, but it’s not a bad one either — it’s just a quiet, likeable little story with a few flaws that kept me from falling in love with it.

The book tells the story of Joel, whose late father was a chalk maker and whose mother is a janitor at the private school for wealthy children that he attends. The school is home to both regular students such as Joel and Rithmatists, the highly secretive sect of students who are taught to use geometry and precise chalk drawings to fight the wild chalklings in Nebrask, a place where humanity has long been at war.

Though Joel was not selected as a Rithmatist, he remains fascinated by them, sitting in on their classes, studying their theory, and dreaming of becoming a scholar of their methods. After years of watching them from afar, Joel is pulled into their orbit when Rithmatic students begin disappearing, leading to an investigation led by Professor Fitch. With his knowledge of Rithmatic principles, Joel and his friend Melody, a Rithmatic student who has been assigned to Professor Fitch for tutoring, race against time to find the culprit before more students are taken.

Joel is a likeable protagonist, intellectual and curious in a slightly less hectic way than David from Sanderson’s Reckoners novels. His back-and-forth with Melody is charming enough, but the rest of the cast never really comes to life in any meaningful way. Likewise, the story is largely devoid of action until the climax. It isn’t boring, per se, primarily because the book is fairly short, but by the time things start ramping up the book is just about complete and Sanderson is setting things up for the next installment.

If you’re a Sanderson fan, I say go ahead and read THE RITHMATIC, if for no other reason than to bask once again in the brilliance of Sanderson’s world building. The rules for Rithmatics are interesting, and are probably the primary strength of the book.

If you’re looking for an entry point into Sanderson’s cosmere, I would recommend beginning with the Mistborn books, or even the Reckoners. It’s entirely possible that I’ll pick up the sequel to THE RITHMATIC just to see where the story goes, but I can’t say it meets the exceedingly high standard Sanderson has set with so much of his other work.


Better Than a Potato in a Minefield … FIREFIGHT by Brandon Sanderson

In February 2014, my bride-to-be and I drove to South Padre Island to scout out what proved to be our wedding location. Accompanying us on that 12-hour round trip was Brandon Sanderson’s STEELHEART, read by MacLeod Andrews.

I don’t usually listen to audiobooks, but I knew I had a long drive ahead of me with very little in the way of scenery, landmarks or entertainment. It turned out to be a great decision, and so I pre-ordered FIREFIGHT and looked forward to reading it as soon as it was released. I wasn’t disappointed.

In much the same way that Sanderson’s second book in the MISTBORN series, THE WELL OF ASCENSION, handled the difficulties created by defeating the antagonist in the series’ first book, FIREFIGHT recognizes that defeating STEELHEART not only didn’t solve all the Reckoners’ problems, but it actually created some new ones.

Early in the book, the new mayor of Newcago asks David what the Reckoners’ plans are for taking on all the high epics coming to the city to challenge David and the rest of the Reckoners. David soothes her concerns, but it’s all a bluff — if there’s a plan, he doesn’t know it.

There’s also the newly-discovered knowledge that Prof, head of the Reckoners, and Megan, David’s love interest, are both epics.

“I’d grown up practically worshipping the Reckoners, all the while loathing the Epics. Discovering that Prof was both … it had been like discovering that Santa Claus was secretly a Nazi,” David muses.

One of my favorite things about these books are the way Sanderson blends the sheer fun of normal people fighting back against superheroes with plenty of character contemplation and world development. Sure, David and the Reckoners have some awesome action sequences, but there’s also a lot of time spent with thoughtful dialogue about the world they live in and what the clues they discover mean to their situation.

In FIREFIGHT, David remains the goofy kid we grew to love in the first book, but he’s also coming to grips with the fact that his lifelong determination to kill Steelheart means that he doesn’t quite fit in with other kids his age. More importantly, he’s wondering just how much humanity remains in the epics around them, and questions whether the Reckoners’ actions have the moral justification he’d once thought.

Fortunately, Sanderson blends these more serious considerations with the same humor featured in STEELHEART. David still struggles with metaphors/similes:

I mixed with ordinary people about the same way that a bucket of paint mixed with a bag of gerbils.

and David’s interactions with Megan continue to entertain.

“You’re like a potato!” I shouted after her. “In a minefield.”
She froze in place. Then she spun on me, her face lit by a half-grown fruit. “A potato,” she said flatly. “That’s the best you can do? Seriously?”
“It makes sense,” I said. “Listen. You’re strolling through a minefield, worried about getting blown up. And then you step on something, and you think, ‘I’m dead.’ But it’s just a potato. And you’re so relieved to find something so wonderful when you expected something so awful. That’s what you are. To me.”
“A potato.”
“Sure. French fries? Mashed potatoes? Who doesn’t like potatoes?”
“Plenty of people. Why can’t I be something sweet, like a cake?”
“Because cake wouldn’t grow in a minefield. Obviously.”
She stared down the hallway at me for a few moments, then sat on an overgrown set of roots.
Sparks. She seemed to be crying. Idiot! I thought at myself, scrambling through the foliage.Romantic. You were supposed to be romantic, you slontze! Potatoes weren’t romantic. I should have gone with a carrot.”

In FIREFIGHT, most of the Reckoners leave Newcago for Babylon Restored (formerly Manhattan), to take on Regalia, a High Epic who knew Prof and Tina before Calamity. At first I was concerned, as the Reckoners leave Cody and Abraham, who of my favorite Reckoners from the first book, but Sanderson uses the opportunity to introduce new characters well, and the addition of Mizzy adds another strong character to the cast.

If you liked STEELHEART, I can’t imagine you being disappointed by FIREFIGHT — Sanderson brings even more humor, even more interesting reveals and just as much emotion as we saw in the first book. It’s only a few days since FIREFIGHT was released and I’m already looking forward to CALAMITY’s release date.

STEELHEART by Brandon Sanderson

STEELHEART has many of the same themes as MISTBORN: a superpowered tyrant who may be unkillable, a lone rebel who joins with an underground network of freedom fighters, a desperate plan with little chance of success.

But Sanderson differentiates this work with a far different voice and a lot more humor, making this perhaps my favorite Sanderson novel to date, though I must admit I haven’t read much of his beyond the MISTBORN trilogy and the conclusion of THE WHEEL OF TIME.

Sanderson may be the best author today when it comes to creating logical magic systems, but in this book he’s more free with his rules, admitting that Epics (basically comic-book style superheroes) don’t follow the rules of physics, and their powers are often difficult to explain. Sanderson does keep the Epics in check, however, ascribing each one a weakness that can be exploited and limiting each to one primary power and possible a complementary ability.

Our main character David provides a compelling entry into this world, and I found all the Reckoners to be clearly drawn, easily likeable characters. During the climactic confrontation, I found that there was really only one character (sorry, Tia) whose presence I wouldn’t miss in future books.

This was a fun read, an enjoyable take on the superhero / comic book genre, and I’m looking forward to reading the next book. I’ve already downloaded MITOSIS to my Kindle, an opportunity to revisit this world one more time before FIREFIGHT comes out in the fall.

Review of A MEMORY OF LIGHT by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

I’ve mentioned this before in my WHEEL OF TIME reviews, but I started reading this series more than 15 years ago. I read the first nine books in the series, saw the plot meander more than I would have liked and struggled to remember all the plot and character details from one publication date to the next. I decided I’d wait until the series was complete, then go back and read from beginning to end. With A MEMORY OF LIGHT set to publish in November, I started my re-read in July. More than nine months later, I’m finally finished — and I’m glad I went back to the series to see how it all ended.

There’s a reason people just don’t write stories with this many cultures, this many characters and this many plotlines. It’s tremendously challenging to write a story this epic. Characters have to be short-shrifted, some plotlines don’t get resolved and questions don’t get answered. In the middle books of the series, we saw Robert Jordan struggle with the numerous plot lines, and they resulted in some pretty dull books.

But in A MEMORY OF LIGHT, we saw most of the plot lines come to satisfying conclusions. Some were heart-breaking, others inspirational. The pace was good, and the Last Battle was exciting and terrifying and chaotic. I think I enjoyed A MEMORY OF LIGHT more than any other book in the series, even more than the early books that got me hooked on the series in the first place.

When we entered this world in EYE OF THE WORLD, we weren’t terribly invested in these characters, but by the time we’ve gotten to the end, they seem very real. We’ve seen them all at their best and their worst. There have been books in which I’ve enjoyed a character and their arc, and other books in which I’ve actively disliked the same character — much like real life. Spend enough time around someone, and you’ll both love and hate them at times. I feel much the same way about many of the main characters in WHEEL OF TIME, and somehow that makes them feel even more real to me. I like Perrin, but I hated when he moped. I like Mat, but he was obnoxious when the dagger tainted him in the early books. Egwene was tough as nails in her return to Tar Valon, but also seemed quick to shove aside her loyalties to old friends in her dedication to the White Tower.

All the major characters had strengths and flaws.

I noted early in reading the books that Jordan did a good job of establishing interesting secondary characters, and I think that paid off more than ever before in A MEMORY OF LIGHT. Not surprisingly, there are a lot of deaths in the Last Battle, and Jordan’s ability to create interesting secondary characters means we can share the losses the characters feel without totally wiping out the primary cast. We have this huge battle taking place on multiple fronts, and rather than seeing it through the eyes of just four or five, we get a sense of how large and chaotic it is because Sanderson can leap around from 20 points of view, and even better, those points of view come from characters we’re already invested in.

Now that I’ve read all the way to the end — almost four million words — I’m glad to say it was worth the journey. The middle books are slow, but I think it may be easier for other readers to get through them knowing that the final four or five books of the series pick up and lead to a terrific conclusion. As I read through the middle third, I was wondering if the series would ever get back on track. I’m glad to have seen that it did and that THE WHEEL OF TIME has earned its place in the fantasy pantheon.

I can’t think of any series that compare — it’s a far longer story than LORD OF THE RINGS, and includes far more complicated plot threads; SWORD OF TRUTH is only slightly shorter, but doesn’t have the same epic feel because it focuses on only a handful of characters (plus Terry Goodkind seems like kind of an asshole); probably the only real comparison in terms of size and scope is the MALAZAN BOOK OF THE FALLEN series by Steven Erikson. Both are complex storytelling, but Jordan’s story seems far easier to enter and understand — I’ve read most of the Malazan books and still can’t really tell you what the hell it’s about.

At the end of the day, THE WHEEL OF TIME belongs on its own shelf on the fantasy pantheon — both literally and figuratively.

Review of TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

There was a point in this series when you couldn’t have convinced me that the conclusion THE WHEEL OF TIME would live up to all its potential. Robert Jordan seemed to be drowning in the sheer quantity of characters and plots he’d created, and as he meandered his way through the middle books of the series, it seemed as though the juggling act had overwhelmed him. There were simply too many characters, too many plots, and the story seemed to have lost its focus. The same scope that made WHEEL OF TIME stand out from the crowd had proven too much for the author to bear.

But having completed the penultimate tome in this landmark series, I’m pleased (and somewhat stunned) to realize that Jordan and Sanderson have brought the story entirely back on track — to the point that it may be better ever, including the opening books that drew me into the story in the first place.

I realize most will be quick to hand Sanderson the bulk of the credit, and he certainly deserves it — he’s brought a much-needed focus to the storytelling that has elevated these final books. But KNIFE OF DREAMS, Jordan’s final completed book, showed signs of righting the ship, and I’d hate to fail to credit from the man for creating the framework of such an epic tale.

For a 1,200-page book, TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT moves quickly, something the middle books in this series struggled to accomplish. All the major characters get their time in the spotlight, and each of them see their plots move forward toward Tarmon Gai’don. Mat is a slightly different character, but I still like him — and he’s a character I didn’t like in the early books. I still love reading Perrin’s chapters — and he seems better than ever in this book –and Rand’s chapters have gotten significantly stronger.

Almost all the characters have set aside their fears and the whining that was getting in the way of the storytelling, and it’s amazing how big a difference that makes, not only in allowing the plot to move forward, but also in allowing us to actually enjoy these characters’ company. There’s even a bit of humor in these books, moments where I  laughed at the dialogue and interplay between characters. Since this didn’t happen often in the first 11 books of the series, I have to assume that’s Sanderson’s touch shining through.

Really, my only criticism of this book lies with Egwene, who was such a strength in THE GATHERING STORM. Her relationship with Gawyn turns into something of a power struggle, and she determines that she won’t let him close until he proves his subservience. It’s off-putting, especially considering that Gawyn was a likeable character before he started mooning over Egwene.

This was a series that had a lot of promise early on, then seemed to wander off the path. It was impossible to see how the pieces would fit together, but the last two books have really brought the characters and their plotlines into order, and if you aren’t looking forward to the final book at this point, then I really can’t understand how you could have gotten through the first 13 books.

Review of THE GATHERING STORM, by Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson

For the past few books of THE WHEEL OF TIME, I’ve had this thought itching the back of my mind, a nagging feeling that Robert Jordan’s editors had let him down. It felt as though while the sales figures continued to climb and the story reached its middle chapters, the editors got lazy.

This plotline went nowhere? Oh well, the guy’s a best-seller.

This scene was unnecessary? Oh well, the guy’s a best-seller.

This character isn’t as likeable as the author imagines? Oh well, he’s a best-seller.

And then Brandon Sanderson came along, picked up Robert Jordan’s notes, and suddenly there was a fresh set of eyes looking at things. Jordan had already started giving the story momentum again in KNIFE OF DREAMS, but THE GATHERING STORM is the most streamlined and consistently exciting plot since this epic story was in its infancy.

I’ve read other comments that Mat has changed, and he is slightly different, but to me the largest difference was the streamlined plot. It was like someone had finally gotten Jordan the editor he’d been needing for the last six books. Characters and plots had definitive arcs, and Egwene and Rand each benefitted from the handling of their storylines.

Egwene, who had been dull in some of the previous books in which she and the rebels did nothing but sit in their camp and complain about their headaches, provided the book with its (and possibly the series’) most gripping action sequence. Rand finally hit rock bottom, and Sanderson showed a side of Rand we hadn’t seen before – and allowed us to see just how tortured he really is.

Mat and Perrin disappeared for most of this book, but I was OK with it. Rand and Egwene’s plots carried the book because they made real advancements and they were exciting. I wanted to find out what happened next to both characters, so I didn’t miss Mat and Perrin as I have in the past.

With THE GATHERING STORM, Sanderson has done an outstanding job in an unenviable situation. Plopped into the middle of a huge epic with a monstrous cast of characters and plotlines, Sanderson maintained Jordan’s strengths, while shoring up Jordan’s weaknesses in building streamlined plot arcs – much like an editor should have been doing all along.

THE HEROES by Joe Abercrombie

Joe Abercrombie may be one of the best world builders in fantasy writing today. I know when you talk about world building, writers such as Brandon Sanderson and Steven Erikson tend to spring to mind first, since they’ve gone to a great deal of trouble to create histories and magical systems for their worlds. Abercrombie builds his world in an entirely different way, focusing less on the magic and the religions and the detailed histories, but around people.

After finishing THE HEROES, I think I like Abercrombie’s method better.

THE HEROES is the fifth book by Abercrombie that I’ve read, and they all inhabit the same world. In each book, Abercrombie slowly, painstakingly introduces us to several different narrators, who describe the action with a unique voice and unique perspective. Abercrombie is an expert at building outstanding characters, from Logan Nine-Fingers to Glokta to Murcatto to Caul Shivers to The Dogman.

One of my favorite things in reading this book was being reintroduced to less prominent characters from previous books, such as Bremer dan Gorst and Bayaz and Calder, and running into old favorites. The Dogman is a minor character here, as is Shivers, and after everything Shivers went through in BEST SERVED COLD, we get to see how he’s seen by the other Northmen after his return. The book is riddled with references to characters we loved from previous books — Ninefingers is often mentioned, as is Rudd Threetrees. Murcatto gets a mention, and even Forley the Weakest.

This is probably the funniest of all the books Abercrombie has written so far, and dan Gorst’s internal dialogue with every character he meets — though he never says any of it out loud — is hilarious. Whirrun of Bligh was a minor character here, but he’s someone I would have loved to have seen more of as well. He’s called Cracknut Wirrun by his fellow Northmen, and at one point he’s telling a young fighter how he got the name by cracking nuts with his hands, but another character tells him that they actually call him that because he’s crazy and they all think his nut is cracked. “Well that’s not nearly as complimentary, those fuckers,” is Whirrun’s reply.

I can’t do it justice — Abercrombie’s humor is very similar to Scott Lynch’s, the kind that makes me sit there laughing out loud while the people around me wonder if I’m the one whose nut is cracked.

At the end of the day, Abercrombie finds a way to draw the reader into these new characters too, and by the end of the book there’s a whole world there, full of people that I feel like I know, an incredible world in a way that no magical system can match. It’s an outstanding accomplishment and an exceptional read.