The Iron Trial
Author: Holly Black and Cassandra Clare
Series: The Magestarium #1
Release Date: September 9, 2014
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Genre(s): Middle Grade, Fantasy
As a part of the original Harry Potter generation I am always skeptical of books that seem like they might be trying a little too recreate that same feeling and sense of magic. After all, most attempts that try to do so fail. I won’t say that I wasn’t a little critical of The Iron Trial initially because that would be a lie. But I had a lot of faith in this book. Holly Black and Cassandra Clare are both talented ladies with some fantastic book series already under their belts, so a collaboration between the two of them almost seemed too good to be true.
Luckily The Iron Trial turned out to be a pretty entertaining read.
Unlike so many other books, The Iron Trial takes more of a Lev Grossman’s The Magicians-style approach to middle grade fantasy. Magic isn’t this awesome, seemingly endless power best used for hexing friends and turning mice into teacups. Instead it’s a powerful force that takes serious training to master. School isn’t a place for fun and mischief-making but a place full of monotonous tasks and terrifying, almost impossible trials.The world-building and magic system are well thought out and there’s little ambiguity in why things happen the way they do. That’s actually kind of refreshing.
Equally refreshing is the way our hero, Callum Hunt, views this world. He doesn’t want anything to do with any of it. Call grew up knowing his parents were both students at the Magestarium and believing that magic is the reason his mother is dead. He always knew that he, too, would have to apply to study at the school but his father coached him on how to fail. Except he doesn’t fail and he’s ripped away from his father and thrust into a world he’s done his best to avoid. He’s not happy about this new world full of magic and possibilities unlike so many other middle grade fantasy heroes in similar situations.
Call is young but he’s experienced things that sometimes give him an understanding beyond his years. Part of this comes from his disability. As a child his leg was mangled almost beyond use and he’s been forced to deal with pain and overcome hardship his entire life. But while at times he uses his leg as an excuse he’s an incredibly strong young man who learns how to succeed even despite his limitations. As someone who has grown up with a disability, that resonated strongly with me.
To top it all off, though, he’s got an interesting character arc. While he hates magic he learns to embrace it. He learns to embrace his own potential. And while his father has taught him to be skeptical of anyone at the Magestarium he also comes to find out that his father hasn’t exactly been truthful with him either. There are mysteries surrounding Callum that demand answers. At the same time, though, Callum is not our ‘chosen one.’ This is one of the most intriguing parts of the story. From the people actually in The Iron Trial, Callum is more like the Ron to his friend’s Harry.
Despite these interesting changes, the book is not flawless.
It’s really, really similar to Harry Potter even despite the numerous differences and often blatant attempts to distance itself from the more familiar series. It’s generally pretty well paced but does drag sometimes. And sometimes, I don’t know, the world seems almost too dark for the characters and audience. Don’t get me wrong. I liked it. But an eleven year old? The things that happened and the way the war was described seemed more like the battles in The Dresden Files than Harry Potter.
Still, the flaws aren’t that big of a deal.
The Iron Trial is a really fun read that can be enjoyed by readers of any age. In fact, despite the young age of the characters, I’d almost say that older readers may enjoy it more than the intended target audience. The older Harry Potter generation will better appreciate the similarities the book has with others in it’s genre as well as the ways the series sets itself apart. It’s definitely a book I feel confident in recommending. As long as you can give middle grade fiction a chance, I’d say give it a try!