Flash Review – The Iron Trial

by S.B.

The Iron TrialThe Iron Trial
Holly Black and Cassandra Clare
Scholastic Press
Release Date:  September 9, 2014
ISBN 978-0-545-52225-0

Callum Hunt is a 12 year old boy.  He lives with his dad; his mother died when he was baby.  He also has a gimp leg – the multiple surgeries and years of physical therapy have not alleviated the sliding limp in his walk.  Because he can’t run away, he tends to get teased and ostracized at school, and he’s become  a sarcastic, sharp witted (and sharp tongued), angry 12 year old.

He’s also a mage.  From a family of mages.  And he has just been notified that he is to report to the Iron Trial, which will determine if he will be invited to attend the Magisterium, the famous school where young mages learn to control and expand their powers.  But Call’s father doesn’t want him to go to the Magisterium.  Alistair Hunt attended classes there when he was Call’s age, but now he warns his son that the Magisterium is dangerous, that the teachers there are evil and care nothing about the students in their charge.  He tells Call to do everything in his power to fail at the Iron Trial, that he must fail.  And Call tries, he really does.

And that’s when Call’s story begins.

The Iron Trial is a book aimed at the younger set, ages 8 to 12.  It’s the first of five planned books, no doubt to correspond with the five years of schooling within the Magisterium system.  It’s also written by two women who are no strangers to young people’s fiction:  Holly Black is author of numerous well received YA supernatural fantasy novels (such as Doll Bones, The Spiderwick Chronicles and The Coldest Girl in Coldtown); Cassandra Clare is author of the popular “The Mortal Instruments” YA series.

With this pedigree, I expected better.  While Call was a fairly engaging central character, and the story took an interesting twist at the end of the book, virtually everything else was lacking.  So much was unrealistic, such as a lack of magic occurring without any kind of shielding or cover.  The Magisterium itself is simply a cave in Virginia, a virtual underground wonderland of amazing scope, harboring hundreds of people and untold numbers of elemental creatures, surrounded by woods that hold chaos-ridden animals (think demonic possession) and even humans (or they used to be human).  Really?  In a cave in Virginia, and no one notices?

The magic is awfully darned convenient.  Food that looks like mushrooms and lichen but can taste like steak, spaghetti or lo mein?  Masters who seem all powerful yet it’s awfully darned easy for kids like Call to sneak around, break into his Master’s quarters, use forbidden equipment and even steal his property, and there’s not only no consequences, but no acknowledgement that anything has happened.

Then there’s the rote, cardboard characters.  The “smart girl” and the “good hearted” boy who are part of Call’s team, but also the snarky rich kid, the giggly cute girl, the boy who is not who he seems to be.  The students careen between old beyond their years to agonizingly childish, the teachers are either all seeing or simply not there, families are either tyrannical or non-existent.  All the characters except Call (and even Call, to a certain extent) are simplistic, two dimensional, inconsistent and, well, simply not engaging.

I do not discredit Ms Black and Ms Clare for writing a book about young mages (wizards) who are attending a special school (Hogwarts), with a special trio of students who have adventures together.  It’s hard to dispel the Harry Potter similarities, but that’s honestly not why I take issue with this story.  The issue I take with this book is that it simply is not good, it’s fair to middling at best.  Even for pre-tweens, the narrative was way too full of plot holes and inconsistencies, too much happened because it needed to happen, the magic was far too convenient to be believable.  Kids deserve better.  Hopefully, in the next volume, it will get better.

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