The Rithmatist, by Brandon Sanderson (2013)

Check out my review policy for a few disclaimers before proceeding.

Content warnings: mostly fake swearing, children kidnapped, other people murdered. Honestly, it’s tamer than G.A. Henty.

I wasn’t initially too enthused about a book where the magic consists of chalk scribblings, much less a mystery. Nevertheless, it was by Brandon Sanderson, and it was on the shelf at the library, so—why not?

The story follows a kid named Joel, who, despite his longings and the title of the book, is not a Rithmatist, a magic chalk mage-warrior person. He goes, nevertheless, to magic chalk mage-warrior person boarding school (it teaches other things), which is an interesting twist on the overdone magic school theme. He has the power to draw mathematical figures incredibly well, which would have been a great reason for God to pick him to be a Rithmatist, but that didn’t happen.

Oh, yes. God (called the Master) picks the Rithmatists, or is at least believed to, in a ceremony called inception. I’m of mixed feelings about this. On one hand, Brandon Sanderson, a Mormon, handles religion very well, even make-believe religions. The Monarchical Church is nominally Christian, although Christ is never mentioned, perhaps not to scare people off. On the other, the theology of it is weird. I’d rather the book either pick being explicitly one religion or another than having it all up in the air.

Anyway, the plot consists of Rithmatist children disappearing mysteriously, with blood and mysterious chalk drawings on the ground. Joel, Melody the unwilling and mostly incapable Rithmatist (again, what was God thinking?), and Professor Fitch the Ex-Professor, must work together to find the culprit before it’s TOO LATE!!11!

Did I mention I’m not a fan of mysteries?

It would have helped if the certain bits of required knowledge of the magic system were properly explained. It is not mentioned that a Rithmatic line will not function if the intend behind drawing it is incorrect, until after they attempt to draw one of the aforementioned mysterious lines and fail, therefore concluding that it is not really a true line. Furthermore, the Forgotten, which are critical to the ending, are not explained at all by the book except for an off-handed mention earlier. I’d really rather have known that *SPOILER REDACTED* was possible before the conclusion.

And speaking of the conclusion, part of the denouement involves a conversation that stretched my suspension of disbelief. I can’t explain why, except to say that knowing who the real villain is, but being unable to convince anyone else, is pushing it.

This is mostly nit-picking, though. The magic was plausible, the characters unique, the plot intense, and I couldn’t stop reading it, even after my bedtime. Joel is easy to sympathize with, especially after—well, read the book. I give it one great blue heron of approval.

Spaceships in Fantasy fiction.

The War Against the Gods is a fantasy series. It also has spaceships.

Several drafts ago, the world of tWAtG was a set in a world of shards suspended in the ether. Special etherships would travel from shard to shard, as well as (what else?) dragons. Fortunately or unfortunately, I couldn’t quite make the physics of it all work*, as well as certain other spoilery reasons came up, and so it was axed.

I still wanted to have ships though, so now we have spaceships in a solar system, with magic added.

The problem, usually, with mixing high fantasy and scifi together, unless they’re in conflict, is that  is that that you end up with something resembling neither. Yes, I’ll enchant my rocket to make it fifty times lighter, and then strap a seven-league boot to its nose, so I can skip past all that rocket equation nonsense. Or, oh, you have a spell that will kill all life on earth? That’s nice, but I’ll just drop this here asteroid on your dark tower.

In practice, to avoid this, either the magic makes the science irrelevant or the science subsumes the magic under it.

In this series, the magic wins out. Though, it obeys its own natural laws, so I guess science has the last laugh?

Anyway, the spaceships are propelled by magic, but then we have the problem of Newtonian physics: namely, the space bombardment problem. This is fine if you want to have big explosions, not quite so fine if you want to have hand-to-hand combat on the steps of the palace.

In a previous draft, I solved the problem with point defense: ground buildings would simply shoot the objects out of space. Looking back, I realize this would not have solved the problem of sufficiently small rocks accelerated at a fraction of c, but there were other problems. I was inspired to consider that the mechanical adding machines** required to react fast enough didn’t fit the story either.  So I did what any good SF/F novelist does when encountering an intractable problem:

I “borrowed” someone else’s idea.

In The Mote in God’s Eye, space battles are kept from devolving into one shot, one kill, by adding the Langston Field, a sort of forcefield. Dune has the Holtzman shields to have sword fights in a SF novel. Neon Genesis Evangelion has the A.T. field to explain its mecha/cyborg things.

My version is called an aura: a field created by a stargem or a star weapon that is near-impenetrable by objects traveling at high speeds. The higher the speed, in fact, the harder the aura is. The easiest way to get past an aura is to easier to simply bring another aura to cancel it out. It is also possible to bombard an aura with enough kinetic energy, though this is more difficult. Auras have capacitance: the aura grows stronger linearly as more ethereal power is pumped into it, and it does not decay.

This means, in practice, that if I spend three stargem hours accelerating an asteroid towards your dark tower, and your defense aura has been up for three hours, the aura will just break—but so will the asteriod.

Smaller, weaker versions powered by ethereal crystals also exist, called psuedoauras, though they only last for so long.

Thus, space bombardment is impossible for anything important, and as a side effect, single combat becomes even more reasonable, as archers cannot pick off warriors with auras or psuedoauras from a distance.

Here’s to hoping this will fix things.

* It’s not as if I actually went and wrote down a physics textbook describing new laws of physics, but I’d like things to make some modicum of sense. For example, does a small shard have the same gravity as a large shard, and if they’re both at a standard 1 G, why? What about ships traveling between shards? Do otherwise normal laws of physics apply? Are there atoms? Does gunpowder work? et cetera.

** I refuse to have computers. Computers are one step too far for the series. I’m still thinking of ways to keep them out.

Marrow, by Robert Reed (1997)

Check out my review policy for a few disclaimers before proceeding.

Content warnings: swearing, glossed-over sex, including interspecies sex (what?), lots of people getting decapitated (most of them get better) and miscellaneous violence in cruel detail.

One of my favorite wonderings is wondering how long it would take for humans starting with nothing but knowledge to build themselves into a space-capable civilization. This book almost delivers.

The story revolves around a planet, unsurprisingly named Marrow. Unlike most planets, this one is held by force fields inside a massive, Jupiter-sized derelict alien spaceship called the Great Ship. At the start of the book the Great Ship has long since been settled by humans, who use it as some combination of habitat and interstellar taxi service for other species. Humans, at this point, are now immortal cyborgs, as the book’s plot spans millennia.

A short aside: If transhumanism ever pans out, as it often does in SF novels, and once all the kinks are worked out, I doubt humanity and its culture would remain mostly the same except that everyone lives forever. Brain uploads, personality rewriting, group minds, post-singularity AIs, or any of the common tropes would lead to a vastly different world. In particular, after reading the Golden Age trilogy by John C. Wright, I inevitably compare transhuman visions with it and find most wanting.

In any case, the book starts with some of the best and brightest captains of the ship having a secret meeting, wherein it is revealed that deep inside the Great Ship lays an unexplored, unknown planet. On their expedition, the bridge back home is destroyed in an event known as the Event, leaving the captains stranded on Marrow. After waiting for rescue for several years, they realize they’re on their own.

A good portion of the book is spent on Marrow, where the godlike transhumans are reduced to a nomadic tribal society. To achieve the necessary industrial base to return, they produce children, but many rebels split off to form their own tribe. I wished this portion was longer, but most of it is glossed over.

After they return comes a some violent episodes and several plot twists. I had already been spoiled by a vague memory of the original novella that of which this book was based, but I will not spoil you, and simply leave you to read the book.

The ending I found anticlimactic and hard to follow, though having read the book in a single sitting, I may have been too tired to read it right.

As for its moral content, I must say I was disappointed, particularly with the brief and squick-inducing mention of human-alien sex. Of more concern is the level of violence, which is overly depicted. As for religion, as with many secular SF stories it is depicted as for fools. The two religions depicted on Marrow, the Waywards and the Loyalists, are both false. The one afterlife scene is later shown to be a virtual reality. Then again, at least it didn’t rant against real religions, which is a plus I guess?

My verdict: Good enough to read, not enough for me to re-read. I plan to check out the sequel from my local library. I give it one bittern of mostly neutral approval.

Prologue Complete!

I’ve just finished the prologue of my new, as of yet, unnamed novel.  Unlike most fantasy novel prologues, it contains actual action, people dying, things exploding, and the end of a false god. Now I’m off to edit it.

(Skybreaker’s new name is now Lightning, btw.)