Two of the biggest YA titles of this summer landed on the literary scene in a splash of ink and chalk dust. Both authors, in a sense, are newcomers to the young adult space. While Brandon Sanderson is a household name among readers of adult fantasy books, with his epic Mistborn series and his connection to Robert Jordon of The Wheel of Time, The Rithmatist is Sanderson’s first foray into young adult fiction. In contrast, Amanda Sun is a real “red shirt freshman” with her debut novel Ink, the first in her Paper Gods series. While a common thread of fantastical powers invoked by art links these books, they are two very different animals.
The Rithmatist takes on a stolidly classic fantasy approach to the young adult genre, leaning toward the middle grade end of the spectrum. Closer to the Harry Potters and Chrestomanci Chronicles of YA fantasy, The Rithmatist eschews the love triangles, angst, and drama that have become ever-present in this space, opting instead to focus on magic, worldbuilding, and mystery, while a budding romance simmers quietly in the background. The Rithmatist is the classic story of a poor, disenfranchised boy with an impossible dream for a better life. Obsessed with the mysterious and magical world of the chalk dueling Rithmatists, Joel is nonetheless forced to watch them from the sidelines because he missed being chosen in a mysterious religious ceremony.
While Joel was not “chosen,” he has become an expert of Rithmatic lore and has a gift for creating the mathematical symmetries necessary to be a skilled Rithmatist. Joel’s unusual talents land him an assistanceship with Professor Fitch, the gifted but gun-shy, absentminded Rithmatics professor. Through Professor Fitch, Joel and the remedial Rithmatics student Melody become part and parcel of a dangerous investigation that will have a lasting impact on their lives and the world around them.
Sanderson does an excellent job, as always, describing the workings and rules of Rithmatic magic. A Rithmatist uses chalk to draw shapes, barriers, and creatures that come alive when compelled by his or her powers. Part advanced geometry, part intense speed sketching, and part game theory and tactics, Rithmatists use their magic to duel against one another and to fight against their common foe, the wild chalklings that are threatening to overrun human civilization. Reminiscent of other chalk-and-drawing-based magic systems found in Japanese pop culture, like Full Metal Alchemist, Rithmatics is nonetheless a largely original discipline.
While I won’t go so far as to say that The Rithmatist measures up to the lofty bar Sanderson set for himself with classics like the Mistborn series, it was a fun summer read that was largely carried by the intricate, entrancing art of Rithmatics and by its retro old-school fantasy plot and characters.
In contrast, Ink falls solidly into the accepted format of some of today’s most popular paranormal YA romances. Published by Harlequin Teen, home of Julie Kagawa’s Iron Fey series, Rachel Vincent’s Soul Screamers, and Aimee Carter’s Goddess Test books, Ink has at its core an angsty teen romance, simultaneously made at once possible and more difficult by a supernatural connection between love interests.
I would be willing to argue, however, that Ink is one of the best books that Harlequin Teen has published in recent memory. Unlike the other titles noted above, Ink first and foremost has ambiance and amazing worldbuilding. Set in modern-day Japan, where the author lived and traveled, Ink rings with an intense sense of authenticity because of Amanda Sun’s incredible attention to detail. As someone who also lived as a gaikokujin for some time, I couldn’t help but be swept with a strong wave of nostalgia as I read Ink. From the melon soda to the intricacies of social interaction, Sun got it right every time. Fans and expatriates will not be disappointed, while those with little to no sense of Japanese culture will not be hampered by their lack of knowledge.
Ink relays the relationship between Katie, an orphaned girl sent to live with her freewheeling aunt in Japan, and Tomohiro, an aloof bad boy with a secret passion for calligraphy and drawing. The two develop an instant chemistry that quickly turns into a mutual obsession, despite Tomohiro’s dangerous, wild gift for creating creatures and objects from ink–creatures that seem to be drawn to Katie. The back story behind Tomohiro’s powers and Katie’s connection to them is equally well-imagined, drawing on the author’s strong knowledge of Japanese mythology, religion, and history.
In addition to these two pillars, Sun distinguishes Ink from the hoard of average paranormal YA novels through sterling dialogues and her ability to bring small scenes to life through her close attention to the details of human interaction that many authors brush over. Sun really conveys the difficulties of cross-cultural communication and learning to express yourself in a second language, which ultimately, I believe, brought greater authenticity to her dialogue writing as a whole.
Dark and soulful, the Paper Gods series is off to a good start and is certainly a lighter title to add to your summer reading list.