Monday, August 19, 2013

The Rithmatist: Totally Not a Harry Potter Remake

The problem with something very popular and really good, like the Harry Potter series, is the inevitable rip-offs. "Harry, yer an Olympian!" "Harry, yer a Time Lord!" or a Jedi! or a cyborg! or a my little pony! Whatever it happens to be today. Then there's the other problem that anyone who follows the standard Joseph Campbell hero journey is going to sound a lot like anyone else who does it too.

So then I settle down for an early birthday present reading Brandon Sanderson's The Rithmatist on my way back to Yola. When I learned he was starting yet another new series, I was slightly dismayed because I'm waiting around for the continuation of the other five. In fact, 5 of his last 6 releases were not part of one of the 6 series he lists on his website. But oh well, he's always a great read and he put six years into this thing. Let's do this.

We spin the wheel of fascination and learn that today's magical element is ... chalk. Magic chalk drawings, some of which come alive (in a 2D sense) for duelling purposes. Okay. Sounds very unique, like Sanderson always does.

Sanderson is great at creating deep and interesting characters. So who do we get? A teenage boy at an elite boarding/high school where all the teachers are called professors. uhoh. But he's not an orphan - he only lost one parent. And he's NOT a rithmatist. That's very clear from the outset. He wishes he were Harry Potter, but he's not. See? See, look, NOT Harry Potter.

The girl of interest is not brilliant at everything, so she can't be Hermione. Ron is nowhere because the hero is already playing the part of the impoverished character.

And okay, yes, there's a sinister professor he suspects of being the bad guy, but he can't be Snape because ... well, I can't think of a good reason. I devoured the book in under 24 hours [not counting Sunday] and I can't find a reason that isn't a major plot twist spoiler and I wouldn't do that to you. There's a cop/ex-soldier who could put in a convincing Mad Eye performance. There's a lovable prof who plays Lupin, and some students go missing because of an unknown evil, and an office drone who would do a good Percy impercy-nation, and

Oh dear.

Now there are some very important plot spoilers that show that this is totally NOT a HP ripoff. Really. I'm not going to tell you what they are because they are plot spoilers. I will grant you, the differences sometimes look deliberate. "Harry, yer NOT a wizard" is a deliberately different dynamic. Muggles and Rithmatists living together in a semi-integrated school is different, even if the prejudices on both sides are familiar.

Did I mention it's got some steampunk in it? That's different. We're talking Steampunk horses and gold $1 coins full of gears (why?) and a train that's an upside-down monorail with centipede legs and has to be wound up to run.

And it takes place in an alternate universe in the early 1900s where we are the 60 United Isles of America, like Floridia, Nebrask, and worse. He gives us the alternate universe's version of an Indian/chalking attack on the settlement of early pilgrims, and there's an Aztec Empire still at large, and Korea (JoSeon) is the dominant superpower, and there are these knight-senators that are never quite explained, and a church that beatified DaVinci, and

It's not Harry Potter. It's just following similar formulas for a teenage market. Yes. Okay.

Sadly, it's also no Mistborn. (Course, the good part of that is that it's a lot less violent.)

Added for Jeanna: Which is all to say, this is going to go down as my least-favorite Sanderson book.

  1. He may like this magic system the best of all of his, according to one interview I've read, but not for me. It's chalk. Its's not just chalk, it's really limited chalk. You're restricted to those same four lines above. That's it. And at the same time it's supposed to be able to devour the human race? I have no problem with magic colors, magic minerals, magic eyewear, magic stamps, magic candy (wrong Brandon, I know). This doesn't do it for me.
  2. For that matter, there's this whole e=mc2/matter cannot cease to exist problem the book runs into at the end, but I won't go into details. 
  3. I'm just not part of the teenage market.
  4. Too many sudden flashes of inspiration and leaps of illogic. 
  5. Why set it in the United Isles? This is a really weird parallel universe and there's nothing about the alternate universe that compels its existence. It could have been set in steampunk-USA and it wouldn't have changed a blessed thing. Aside from the steampunk, of course, which was cool ... if completely unnecessary also. 
  6. I do hope that someday Sanderson discovers the middle class. He's getting there. Maybe. But the hero's total poverty surrounded by the elite doesn't work and even though he is amazingly poor he somehow has all his needs provided so we don't understand what poverty means either, unlike Warbreaker or Stormlight or Eilantris or pretty much everything else he writes. The hero isn't so much poor as unpopular with his peers and we could have let him just be unpopular without trying to wring in some economics that doesn't fit.
  7. And instead of enjoying the characters it's all I can do to convince myself that it's not a HP knock-off. 

    It has its moments; most of them are at the end so I won't tell you about them unless you ask. The characters grow and not just in their chalking abilities. They don't do incredibly stupid things (although see point 4 above). The romance is believable and subtle. The girl is memorable. I'd take a look at the sequel. Probably. But after a glorious run of Mistborn 4, Legion, and the personally transformative Emperor's Soul, I'm really disappointed.