Book Review: “The Iron Trial” by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare

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In The Iron Trial, co-authors Holly Black and Cassandra Clare have begun a series that’s bound to soon have legions of followers. The first book of the Magisterium series follows twelve-year-old Callum Hunt after he is admitted to a school of magic. Callum’s world is much like contemporary America, except that magic exists, though only a few people know about it. Both of Callum’s parents attended the Magisterium, but after Callum’s mother was killed in a horrific magical battle when Callum was just a baby, his father has sworn off magic forever, even coaching Callum to fail the school’s admission test. Despite their best efforts, Callum ends up at the Magisterium, apprenticed to Master Rufus along with two other initiates, Tamara and Aaron. Now stuck at this mysterious underground complex, Callum not only faces the trials of learning magic, but also of discovering details of his own identity that his father kept from him.

Obviously, the plot of this novel is going to sound very familiar to many of you (and I didn’t even mention the “Enemy of Death” who’s the big baddie of the series), and perhaps it’s no surprise, given that Cassandra Clare got her start writing Harry Potter fan fiction, and both authors are staples of the Potter fan community.

Still, the plot manages to find some original footing, and though the influences are obvious, I think this is a story that most Harry Potter fans will enjoy. I’m also hopeful that subsequent volumes will diverge considerably now that the initial premise has been established, since the authors do throw in quite a plot twist near the end of the novel. If you’re able to let yourself stop noticing the similarities, it’s a pretty fun ride. It’s also worth noting that while the book has many plot details and tropes in common with Potter, the tone is really more like that of Percy Jackson – a bit silly, a tad irreverent.

I’ve never really read Black or Clare before (besides a brief stint with The Spiderwick Chronicles when I was younger), but their writing talent is evident. I think part of what saves the book from seeming totally derivative is the skill with which The Iron Trial is written. The prose flows smoothly and the book reads incredibly quickly – by the time the third book in this series comes out, it will undoubtedly be a phenomenon.

Even so, I personally wasn’t able to completely overlook the similarities to Potter. While I’ll probably read the second installment to see how the series is coming along, there wasn’t quite enough original material to keep me completely engaged. Also, as a long-time fantasy reader, I am as yet unimpressed with the magic system Black and Clare have developed, even with compared with other middle grade novels.

I will say that I would not hesitate to recommend this book to younger readers looking for something to read post-Potter, since I know from experience that these types of similarities don’t bother kids as much (I loved The Chronicles of Prydain and The Lost Years of Merlin equally as a child, although only one has stood the test of time) and this skillfully written novel is sure to appeal to the authors’ fervid fans. Though I wasn’t blown away, I did enjoy the book, and I’m hoping Black and Clare will blow me away with volume two.