Tag: Holly Black

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.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

Cover image for The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Blackby Holly Black

ISBN 978-0-316-21310-3

“We all wind up drawn to what we’re afraid of, drawn to try to find a way to make ourselves safe from a thing by crawling inside of it, by loving it, by becoming it.”

Vampirism is a terrible reality in Tana’s world, a raging epidemic that took her mother, and almost cost her her own life. Vampires who choose to feed on but not kill their victims have spread the infection like wildfire, and the government has responded by sequestering vampires and their victims alike into Coldtowns across the country. Once you go into a Coldtown, you almost never come back out. When Tana wakes up in a bathtub after spending a party hiding from her ex-boyfriend, Aidan, she expects to find the usual morning-after chaos. Instead the house is deathly quiet, probably because all of the partygoers have been slaughtered by vampires. But in one of the bedrooms Tana finds Aidan tied to the bed covered in vampire bites, and a vampire named Gavriel shackled to the bedframe. Horribly familiar with the risks of infection—going Cold—thanks to the death of her mother, Tana sets out for the nearest Coldtown to turn the lot of them in. The Coldtowns are a mix of decadence and squalor, plotting and trading, where the most powerful vampires are internet reality stars. The glamour lures people into coming voluntarily to the Coldtowns with the promise of vampirism and immortality, but once inside, humans become an invaluable food source, rarely achieving their dreams of eternal life. Tana is willing to go into the Coldtown, but she’s also determined to hold onto her humanity and find her way back out.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown opens with a chapter that is completely gripping despite only covering the events described on the jacket copy. Instead of simply saving herself, Tana rescues Aidan and Gavriel, and puts herself at risk of going Cold in the process. As a heroine, Tana had me right from this exchange with Gavriel:

She took a deep breath. “Last chance. Are you in need of rescuing?

His expression turned very strange, almost as if she’d struck him. “Yes,” he said finally.

Maybe it was that nearly everyone else was dead and she felt a little bit dead, too, but she figured that even a vampire deserved to be saved. Maybe she ought to leave him, but she wasn’t going to.

I was really hooked by Holly Black’s sense of humour, and her willingness consciously skewer stereotypes and tropes, in this case, the damsel in distress. Instead of assuming Gavriel wants her help, Tana asks him, and then she helps him in spite of the fact that doing so puts her in very real danger. This is just the first of many scenes showcasing the great character dynamics and that make this book so enjoyable. Tana and Aidan have a troubled history, and things only get more combative when Aidan goes Cold and starts hankering for her blood. The romance between them is dead, but their interactions are still fraught.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is full of wonderful secondary characters. In case a road trip to the end of the line with your ex-boyfriend and a vampire isn’t tense enough, along the way Tana picks up Midnight and Winter, a pair of fraternal twins running away to Coldtown. They’ve pledged to have “no more birthdays,” and with funding from Midnight’s blog readers, they plan to establish themselves in Coldtown and become vampires. Once inside Coldtown, we also meet Jameson, a human boy tied to the Coldtown by his connection to a vampire woman, and Valentina, a trans girl who went to Coldtown because she couldn’t afford gender reassignment surgery. Everyone follows their own road to Coldtown, but very few of them get what they want from the bargain, and Black shows a variety of characters coping with this reality.

There are a lot of vampire books out there, making it challenging to breathe new life into the genre. Holly Black makes the vampire narrative fresh with unique rules for her world, and unusual social consequences. At the same time, this novel was clearly written by someone with a deep love of the classics of vampire literature, and she also takes the genre back to its roots. The present narrative cut off at crucial moments with flashbacks to Gavriel’s past, which would be right at home in an Anne Rice novel. This kind of toggling can sometimes be more annoying than suspenseful, but the changes in perspective kept me doubly hooked, and I literally finished this book in a single sitting. As much as I long for this to be a series, and to spend more time in this world, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown makes a fantastic and highly recommended  stand-alone narrative; this is the perfect blend of reimagination and classic vampire tale.

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