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Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Book Review: Two Sanderson YA Novels

After our little nerdy birthday date, I was definitely in the mood for reading some Sanderson this past week, so I got on that and read two: The Rithmatist and Steelheart. Before this I'd only read Sanderson's mainstream fantasy (is that an oxymoron?) stuff, but both of these were YA-- one a revisionist historical fiction and the other a dystopian. It was fun seeing Sanderson's signature style in these slightly different genres. Let's discuss!

The Rithmatist 

This one takes place in an early 20th Century steampunk America, only instead of being a unified continent as we know it today, this America is a collection of islands with a loose political connection. The islands are plagued by a deadly pest: the wild chalklings. Only Rithmatists, special individuals chosen by The Master himself to bring chalk drawings to life, can fight them back and keep humanity safe. The story follows Joel, the son of a chalk maker at Armedeus Academy, who is fascinated by Rithmatics but was not chosen by The Master to be one. When students at the school start mysteriously disappearing, Joel teams up with one of the Rithmatist professors to figure out what is going on. The surprising answer reveals a bigger threat than any of them had imagined.

I thoroughly enjoyed this one. I mean, the premise is a little weird (chalk drawings that come to life?) but Sanderson is nothing if not good at developing a believable magic system, and this totally worked. Sanderson had every element of his successful formula here: unique and intriguing world-building, quirky characters, page-turning suspense, and a surprising twist at the end that, try as I might, I can never anticipate. Honestly, it's knowing that twist is coming that keeps me hooked on Sanderson books. He is just so masterful at it. Anyway, it was a lot of fun to see this formula at work in a YA book (re: less time-commitment than his usual fare). It was great fun.

Side note: I listened to this one as an audio book, which I don't actually recommend. There are a lot of diagrams explaining the chalk drawings, and it's just so much easier to see them in the book than try to picture them from the descriptions. I didn't feel like it was a big enough issue to stop listening and get the real book, this is just a courtesy warning to anyone who wants to read this book in the future.

Steelheart 

This book, Sanderson's most recent release, was the reason for the book signing we went to. At the signing, Sanderson said the inspiration for this novel came when someone cut him off in traffic one day and he thought, What if I just had the power to blow that guy off the road? Thus the idea came: ordinary humans who are suddenly gifted with superhuman powers. Instead of being the superheros that we read about in the comics, these Epics (as they're called) are corrupted by their absolute power and proceed to terrorize and dominate mankind, taking what they want, killing at will, and ruling with fear. This is the story of David, who as a young boy watched Steelheart, one of the strongest and most ruthless Epics, kill his father. David wants nothing more than to find the Reckoners, a small group of mortals who are fighting back, and convince them to take Steelheart on once and for all. And, he happens to know a secret that could change everything.

Okay, so this one was not my favorite. To me, it didn't seem quite as well-written or well executed as some of his other books. It felt a little sloppy, like he wrote it quickly and then didn't really take the time to polish it up much. It also felt darker and a little more violent, though that may just be the nature of the dystopian genre and not so much a fault of the book. I guess I like my violence to be a little more fantasy-based, and not so action-movie-ish.

That being said, it still contained most of the trademarks that I love about Sanderson. There were some very fun characters in this one. I loved that the main character, David, was a nerdy teenager who was super awkward around girls and came up with the worst metaphors (reminded me of my husband, who always cracks the lamest jokes). And once again, the twist caught me by surprise. I really thought I had this one figured out, but while I was close on some things the ending had some unexpected curveballs. I love that.

Anyway, I'd recommend The Rithmatist  before I'd recommend Steelheart, but they were both enjoyable reads. Also, be aware that that both these books have sequels (possibly series?) planned. While I think they both could be read as fairly satisfying stand-alones, there were questions left unanswered in both books. Usually I'm not a fan of YA series, but Sanderson has yet to disappoint me, and his sequels to date have all been fabulous, so I'm actually a little excited to read more of these worlds and see what new directions he takes.

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