Saturday, September 20, 2014

Review: The Iron Trial

I really wanted to like The Iron Trial.  One of its co-writers, Holly Black, is a favorite author of mine.  I'm eager to read any new material she produces. Moreover, there was a lot of excitement for this book amongst the online reading community.  I'm not the only reader who loves Holly Black, and although I'm conflicted about the second co-author, Cassandra Clare, she has legions of fans.

There was some speculation and discussion about how the premise of the book was similar to Harry Potter: a small portion of the population can use magic, but magic's existence is kept secret from those who can't use it; children with magical abilities are sent to a boarding school where they learn to use their talents.  Yes, the premise is very similar to that of Harry Potter, but I figured that the book would have its own originality and its own merit.  I wanted to read it and decide for myself.

Well, I read the book and made a decision.  It's a hard decision to put into words.  It seems so harsh to write blatant and rip-off.  But that is what I'm truly feeling about The Iron Trial. 

I could never truly get into the story.  The entire time — the entire time — I was comparing and contrasting the book with Harry Potter.  And I argued with myself while I did this.  Ellen, are you just making these comparisons because of prejudice? Are you truly being fair and impartial? But then, my mother saw me reading the book and asked, "Oh, are you reading Harry Potter?"


It turns out, she saw the little illustrations that appear at the beginning of each chapter — so like the ones in Harry Potter — saw a black-haired boy and a dragon, and made a connection.  At this point, I committed firmly to my decision. Any originality that The Iron Trial has is overwhelmed by its similarities to J. K. Rowling's masterpiece.

To be fair, I'm going to take a minute to discuss the book without comparing and contrasting it to Harry Potter.  If I'd read this book as a middle-grade-aged kid, I think I would have enjoyed it.  The story follows Callum Hunt, a boy who has magical ability, but who has been taught by his father to fear and suppress his magic.  Callum's mother was murdered in a war, and his father is embittered and has told Call that the Magisterium, the boarding school where young mages learn to manipulate the elements, confines and exploits magical children. When Callum turns twelve, he and other magical children are made to take the Iron Trial — the entrance exam for the Magisterium.  Callum tries to fail the test, but his plan backfires.

Callum is a bit of an anti-hero.  He has slightly poisonous attitude, an inferiority complex, and a limp.  I can't say that this is a genre break-through or anything, but it made for a bit of an unexpected twist.  The narration was third-person, focusing solely on Callum's perspective.  The tone was classically middle-grade with moments of levity and... HARRY POTTER HARRY POTTER HARRY POTTER!!!

I'm sorry, that's as much as I can discuss without bringing up the boy wizard. While I read, I started making a list of similarities.  It contains spoilers, so I'm going to hide them all behind a button.  Read if you will.

Really, this book is meant for kids, and I think kids will enjoy it.  The only reason I read it is because Holly Black had a part in it.  But — and this makes me really uncomfortable to say — I think her writing is worse for her collaboration with Clare.  Worse, because the originality is not there.

1. Magic exists, with a small portion of the world population able to use it. 2. Those who can't use magic are prevented from discovering its existence. 3. Mostly magic is inherited genetically, but some children from non-magic families are magical. 4. There are boarding schools for magic that young magic users attend. 5. The main character, a boy, has ink-black hair. 6. There exists an evil mage, whose worst fear is death, who started a war. 7. The evil mage wants to defeat and elude death. 8. The evil mage disappeared a little over a decade ago and no one knows where he is. 9. The evil mage's soul is inside of the protagonist's body. 10. "All this time we have waited, Call, for you to be old enough. And here you are nearly ready." 11. "Call woke up in the infirmary." 12. Call's friends at school are a boy and a girl. 13. The school is hard to navigate. 14. Call sneaks around at night. 15. The top mage at the school has a magical animal in a cage in his office and little magical doodads. 16. Published by Scholastic. Why, Scholastic? 17. I simply can't go on.


  1. I really want to read this, and it's on my TBR. I haven't heard it being compared to Harry Potter before, but reading this review does make it sound incredibly similar. I am interested in it because I love Cassandra Clare's books, but I have yet to try something by Holly Black even though I really want to!