A great YA book set in a late victorian clockwork and magic world that borrows a lot from real history… then throws in bold changes, making it unique. The borrowing from the real world, in the end, is mostly the names of countries and empires–but not even that, straight.
It’s a boarding school book, where our hero attends a large, exclusive school that trains people for their careers… including the career of Rithmatist. There’s a lot of interesting history about this weird magical practice that comes out over the book. The first thing we learn is that Rithmatic lines are drawn in chalk, often circles and lines. There’s art interspersed between chapters with drawings of the various circles and their points of intersection. That’s a fascinating read, and lends quite a bit to the feel of a complex, discovered magic system.
Joel is an interesting hero; near obsessed with Rithmatists, but unable to wield their powers. As you’d expect from YA, his focus and dedication, despite the evident incongruity, pays off in the end–but not much before that!
Much like Harry Potter, he’s poor in a society of wealthy aristocrats. While his father is also dead, his mother is present, if mostly in the background. Much of the book is about Joel coming to navigate relationships of his choosing, both with Professor Fitch and Melody.
Melody, in contrast to Joel, is a Rithmatist… but not a very good one. She doesn’t draw great circles, she drifts off in class, and “doodles” unicorns. She’s what Joel wishes to be, squandered… but we find that there’s more to her (and her chalklings) too.
In the end, it was well done. The book comes to a satisfying conclusion, but with a large thread left dangling. I’ll keep an eye out for its promised sequel, but writing hasn’t been begun on it yet.