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Review: Iron Trial by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare

20578940From NEW YORK TIMES bestselling authors Holly Black and Cassandra Clare comes a riveting new series that defies what you think you know about the world of magic.

Most kids would do anything to pass the Iron Trial. Not Callum Hunt. He wants to fail. All his life, Call has been warned by his father to stay away from magic. If he succeeds at the Iron Trial and is admitted into the Magisterium, he is sure it can only mean bad things for him. So he tries his best to do his worst – and fails at failing. Now the Magisterium awaits him — a place that’s both sensational and sinister, with dark ties to his past and a twisty path to his future. The Iron Trial is just the beginning, for the biggest test is still to come…

Okay, let’s get something out of the way. Yes, this is a story about two boys – one of whom is the primary narrator- and a girl who attend a school for magic. There have been MANY books that are about kids at a magic school, but I know you are thinking of one in particular. You’re likely making the inevitable comparisons right now – I’ll give you a minute to get them out there.

*Waits patiently*

All done? Good. Now take those thoughts and throw them out the window. Really. Do it. This book …. well, this book took all my expectations and turned them sideways, then shook them by the collar just for good measure. Imagine if you lived in a world where there was magic … but everyone knew about it. Imagine if there was an amazing school, where only the most talented young magicians were accepted and trained …. and you didn’t want to go there. This is the world where Callum Hunt resides.

Callum is an unusual child. Injured mysteriously as an infant in the prologue, Callum has a pronounced limp, a  sarcastic wit and a perpetual scowl. He knows he’s different, even more so because his father has warned him against using magic and against the Mages who would make him their apprentice. Considering magic was the cause of his mother’s death,  Callum most definitely does not want to go to the Magisterium. Unfortunately for Callum, that’s exactly where he ends up, and he’s not terribly happy about it.

Let me start by saying that I loved how Clare and Black used the elemental forces – earth, fire, water, air and the chaos – as the background for their magical world-building. This gave the book a wealth of lovely source material, allowing them to create creatures and spells that entrance the reader as they add to the story. The magic is very organic (no pun intended) and fits the whole feel of the school. Meals include a lichen that tastes different every time you  eat it, movies are created with air magic and students sprawl on toadstools as chairs. These lovely little moments help to create a vivid picture of the school for the reader, and helps to ground the action when the action begin to take off. Basing all magic through the elements gives each of the achievements an almost scientific feel, and you begin to anticipate what element a character might use for each action.

Callum is surprisingly fun to read about, despite efforts to make him appear unlikable. He’s vulnerable, self-conscious of his own weaknesses and afraid of magic while drawn to it at the same time. He’s snarky and sarcastic and, at times, very much alone, making him more sympathetic than scary. The other students in Callum’s year quickly take shape, especially the two other students in his Mage’s group. Tamara is driven and hard-working, determined to live up to family expectations. Aaron is more relaxed, a kind-hearted golden boy who stands up for Callum in front of the others. Both are hiding secrets, however, and that makes them much more interesting than your standard sidekicks. Magical creatures also play a role here, and I liked how the interactions between humans and creatures added more to the character study than just plot advancement.

Okay, this next part may be a little spoiler-y, so I’m going to hide it: Overall, I found it fascinating to read a story that could be the re-telling of Harry Potter but from Tom Riddle’s point of view. Callum knows pretty early on that he’s not supposed to be one of the good guys, and the warring internal battle between his own cynicism and his desire to be a good person makes him far more complex than you might initially suspect. Hiding that aspect of his nature is difficult for him, and his actions – especially around Havoc – speak volumes about how important this internal struggle will be to future books. 

There are a few slow parts, where the story requires some background exposition, and there are a few plots threads that are introduced and then left behind (likely to be picked up in later books of the series), but overall the story is more scary and action-packed than you might expect. Lots of twists and turns throughout will keep readers guessing right down to the final chapter, and I’m interested to see how the authors will continue to develop the many characters they have introduced. In many ways, this is more classic Diana Wynne-Jones than JK Rowling, with ‘fantasmagorical’ elements to grab your fancy, but the setting is decidedly present-day. Definitely one to pick up for your favourite middle grade reader!

The Iron Trial by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare is published by Scholastic Canada. It is available for purchase now from your favourite independent bookseller, or other fine book retailers. ISBN: 9780545522250, 304 pages.

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