4 out of 5 stars
First, a bit of a whine. The sequel to this book is not scheduled until 2017! How do they expect us to wait that long?!?!? AAARRGHHHH.
Thanks. Now that I feel better, I can review:
This book was bloody amazing. I found it somewhat similar to Harry Potter in that it is set in a boarding school and involves magic. The magic is not wands and spells, however, but drawn chalk diagrams. If one has the special ability of a Rithmatist, chalk drawings can work as weapons, defensive structures, or creatures. Rithmatists can duel or fight, using straight lines and circles to build defences, squiggly lines to shoot, or creatures to move about and attack. Even without a story, that is one hell of a premise. Two dimensional battlefields using drawings? Think Harold and the Purple Crayon, but with fighting. The amount of detail put into the system of magic in this book is unusual. Each chapter starts with a detailed drawing of a chalk structure or creature.
The other amazing things about this book is that Joel, the protagonist, is on the outside looking in. He is not a Rithmatist. He does not have special powers. That is so weird for a Young Adult book and I love the novelty of it. Joel wants to be special but is not. A nice break from so many YA books where you know from page one that the main character is the best or the most special thing in the universe. Joel is ordinary.
The characters have a lot of personality and the story is imaginative and lively. I enjoyed this one so much. There is little romance but lot of friendship. The physical landscape of the world is North America split into small islands with kilometres of railroad track rising above the ocean to connect them all. Fans of steampunk will find a lot of familiar ground, with mechanical horses and coins that have small gears in them (not really sure why, but is a neat idea for interesting looking coinage). This book also slyly addresses class and privilege, and whether a state should be able to conscript talented children in a time of crisis (see Ender’s Game for another good novel discussing that idea). This novel is great for older elementary and up.