Brandon Sanderson does great world-building in this fantasy or steampunk novel. Joel is a student at the Armedius Academy where his dad worked as a chalkmaker before his tragic death. The Academy is made up of Rithmatists, those with special powers who give life to Chalklings, paper-like drawings that come to life and do their bidding. The wild chalklings that viciously attack people are threatening to overrun humanity and Rithmatists are fighting a war against them. The Academy trains scholars and the Rithmatists for combat.
Joel loves anything that has to do with Rithmatists war strategy and history. When a Rithmatist professor is ousted from his teaching position, Joel has an opportunity to work with him. Eager to learn more about the subject he meets a girl, Melody, who is failing her classes and taking summer school classes. Melody is melodramatic and annoying, but she and Joel become friends. When students begin to disappear in the surrounding community and then on campus, the ousted professor is put on the investigation putting Melody and Joel smack dab in the middle of the action. They learn to trust each other and use each other's strengths with teamwork making them a formidable force against the evil attacking their Academy.
The magic system that Sanderson creates is pretty incredible in this tale. It uses math and geometry to create defensive ways of fighting with or against Chalklings. I'm not a great fan of math so I skimmed the diagrams and some of the explanations of ways to fight using it. This didn't take away from me enjoying the novel at all and was well-done with illustrations and inserts to simplify it. While some readers will love the details and eat up the strategies, others might find it slow. If you are the later, then you might want to try my strategy. Either way, it is admirable how the author builds such a complex magic system. I read, "Mistborn" by Brandon Sanderson, and I marveled at that brilliant magic system in that novel as well.
The best part of this book is the ending when the Melody and Joel work together in such harmony that they do something never done before at the school in the "Melee" or dueling ring. I liked how their friendship transformed from one of annoyance to trust. I also appreciated Melody's humor that came out later in the story. I found her just as annoying as Joel at the beginning. Joel's quest to be a Rithmatist is a driving force and I found the turning point where he finds out whether or not he could be one very compelling and a nice twist on the fantasy trope of the protagonist who has superior magical powers. Instead the protagonist, Joel, has to rely on his brains and must figure out a way he can pursue his passion for Rithmatists when he has no magic source. This internal struggle and emotional arc of trying to figure out a career path mirrors real life for so many people.
There is a bit of steampunk going on in this novel with the gear watch and warding off of wild chalklings using clocks but for the most part it is fantasy. Familiar tropes lead to some predictable plot elements with a main character who is an underdog and screw-off, a villain who wants to take over the world, a quest to gain and control magical powers, an absent-minded mentor, a wise leader, and murder mystery. Not all of the questions are answered because there is going to be a sequel, but I didn't mind because the main plot points were wrapped up in this story. The father's death is not answered in full but enough to figure out what happened to him. The villain moves from mostly one-dimensional to a more complex character at the end and I found myself interested in this shift. I believe the sequel will look more into it. I like how Sanderson takes conventional tropes and puts his own unique twist on them making for an entertaining read. If you love fantasy then grab this one.