The Iron Trial (Magisterium #1)

Cover image for The Iron Trial by Holly Black and Cassandra Clareby Holly Black and Cassandra Clare

ISBN 978-0-545-52225-0

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2014. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.

“They all yelled in excitement. Tamara yelled because she was happy. Aaron yelled because he liked it when other people were happy, and Call yelled because he was sure they were going to die.” 

Callum Hunt has been raised by a single father, who has taught him to fear and avoid magic, which took his mother’s life in the last mage war. But as the son two legacy students of the Magisterium, he must attend the Iron Trial, and do his best to fail the admissions test. If he passes, he will face a terrible choice between becoming a servant of the Magisterium, or having his magic bound, and his memory erased. But despite Call’s best efforts to fail the Iron Trial, one of the Masters sees something in him, and chooses him as an apprentice. If he can survive his Iron Year at the Magisterium, he will have learned enough to control his magic, and leave the school forever. But the Magisterium knows how to bind its apprentices tight, and in a year, Call may not want to leave after all, whatever his father has taught him.

Holly Black (The Coldest Girl in Coldtown) and Cassandra Clare (The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones) team up for The Iron Trial, the first in a planned series of five books about a magical world haunted by its war-torn past. Given Clare’s background as a writer of fan fiction, comparisons to Harry Potter are inevitable, and certainly there are parallels beyond the magic school setting. Call’s mother died saving him from The Enemy of Death, a Voldemort-like figure who defected from the Magisterium. Once at school, he becomes friends with Aaron and Tamara, forming a familiar trifecta consisting of two boys and a girl. However, those who dismiss The Iron Trial as a Harry Potter rehash may not have read all the way to the end.

In the introduction to the Advance Readers Edition of The Iron Trial, Black and Clare write, “We wanted to tell a story about a protagonist who had all the markers of a hero: tragedy and secrets in his past, magic power. We wanted people to believe they knew what kind of story they were in for. And then we wanted them to be surprised…” However, the first major reversal doesn’t come until about 200 pages in; subverting tropes means setting up expectations beforehand, and the first two-thirds of the book are heavy on world-building. Anyone who quit before that point could be forgiven for thinking they had been reading an unremarkable addition to the magic school genre. However, the book really comes together in the final 100 pages, where we see Black and Clare making good on their promise to surprise readers that “are familiar with the tropes of fantasy.” The Iron Trial clearly acknowledges its debt to Harry Potter, and other magic school books that have gone before, while paving its own way forward. This is a series to watch.

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