It’s time for another Middle Grade novel review, as I continue to indulge my stunted taste in literature!
Today we’re looking at the first in a planned series of five books, a collaboration between two authors, Holly Black and Cassandra Clare. Black is probably best known for The Spiderwick Chronicles, which I gather did quite well back when they were coming out. I haven’t read any of her stuff, nor am I familiar with her in general. Clare, on the other hand, I know all about. She’s the author of the Mortal Instruments series and its spin-offs/sequels and is semi-infamous for having come out of the Harry Potter fanfiction scene and arguably plundered JK Rowling’s behemoth cash cow for story elements.
(This is one of those situations where I said “arguably” in order to bend over backward for the sake of fairness, what I actually mean is that she totally did)
But forget all that, this is a brand new literary franchise, a chance for Cassandra Clare to prove to the world that she’s good at more than just pastiches of other people’s work!
So what’s this book about?
Callum “Call” Hunt is twelve years old and “troubled” in that Bart Simpson-ish way that mostly seems to consist of a fondness for skateboards. He gets picked on a lot because of his injured leg but other than that life is pretty peachy. Apart from the fact that his mother was murdered by evil wizards, that’s not so cool.
Call’s parents were both
wizardsmages involved in a war with someone called “The Enemy of Death” (seriously) that came to a head with what was supposed to be a climactic battle, the good magi pinning all of their hopes on a young chaos mage. Things didn’t go according to plan and the Enemy slaughtered a whole pile of innocent bystanders, including Call’s mom; he survived the incident (the only person to do so) with nothing more than a permanent limp. Ever since that day his Dad has vehemently sworn off any contact with the world of the mages and fed Call a steady stream of dire warnings about the consequences of getting involved with them.
Staying away from magic is easier said than done though, because due to his parentage Call almost certainly has the gift and will be required by wizardly law to go to the Magisterium for training lest he blow himself up by accident. His dad tries to teach him how to deliberately fail the titular wizard test, but of course he messes it up and passes anyway. Once in the Magisterium Call discovers that things aren’t nearly as terrifying as his Dad made them out to be….. for the moment, anyway. Everyone’s pretty certain that the cold war situation with the Enemy is going to bubble over really quite soon now, and if the forces of not-Evil can’t find another chaos mage to stand against him when the time comes they’ll all be in a spot of bother.
So let’s just get this out of the way first: there is nothing wrong with writing a book about a hidden community of wizards, or a book about a hidden community of wizards that also features a wizard school, or a book about both that includes a scary evil wizard as the villain, or even one where the scary evil wizard killed one or both of the protagonist’s parents before disappearing for years. But when the scary evil wizard is a former wizard school student who got up to shenanigans while still at school, launched a rebellion and is obsessed with immortality and conquering death then you have to start maybe raising an eyebrow or two.
Now imagine that one of the authors of this hypothetical book already wrote a well known series that also happened to feature the exact same plot elements.
But anyway. I felt I couldn’t in good conscience avoid bringing up the Harry Potter similarities (which are even more numerous than my synopsis would indicate), but ultimately The Iron Trial has to stand on its own. And evaluated on those terms it’s….. sort of not good-ish. I guess. It’s the novel equivalent of a shrug accompanied by the expression someone makes when they’ve just smelled something mildly unpleasant.
And it’s a shame because for the first third or so The Iron Trial is pretty entertaining. It’s written with a lively and witty voice without slipping into Clare’s bad habit of filling her books with insufferable quips and the Magisterium itself is engagingly strange without seeming over the top. I like how the setup is a Masters-and-apprentices deal rather than a normal school structure, which brings some interesting dynamics to the table.
Then I noticed that I was rapidly sailing past the 50% mark (thank you Kindle) and nothing resembling an actual plot had yet to appear. The book spends most of its time bouncing along between seemingly random events, then right at the end attempts unsuccessfully to pull this hodge-podge of scattered mysteries, character arcs and plot twists into something resembling a coherent story. It fails pretty spectacularly at this, to the point that I started to wonder if anyone had given most of the book a second draft. The quality of the writing is similarly suspect, starting off okay and then nose-diving as the story reaches its abrupt, tension-free climax.
Character development is handled with all the grace of a jackhammer to the kneecap, Call’s narration helpfully pointing out how that situation in wizard school earlier where he tried to push himself past his physical limitations and failed is sort of analogous to this new situation where an evil wizard is torturing his best friend. Thanks Call, I wouldn’t have been able to figure that out on my own! A chapter earlier an important side character literally spends most of a page summarizing her character development up till this point. It’s like the authors either ran out of time or just gave up toward the end.
One of the book’s biggest problems is that we never see nearly enough of the wizardly world to care about it. We don’t really know what it is the mages do once they’re qualified or how far their hidden society extends; everything revolves so heavily around the Magisterium that it makes the supposedly dire threat of an impending war seem hollow (just to give you an idea of the stunted scale of the story, it eventually turns out the villain’s main henchman has been hiding in an abandoned bowling alley within easy walking distance from the Magisterium). It’s like the authors wrote a simple, light-hearted drama-comedy about a boy going to magic school and then at the last minute decided to tack on an over-arching metaplot about evil chaos wizards doing….. whatever it is the Enemy is trying to do. This is definitely one story that could have done with a few more chapters to breathe and expand its scope.
The lack of any real worldbuilding or set-up also neutralizes the plot twist that the book concludes with, a plot twist that feels completely meaningless. Read charitably it’s the book subverting a trope and then stopping dead in its tracks to wait for applause without actually doing anything else interesting; read uncharitably it’s just Black/Clare trying and failing to blow our tiny little minds.
Maybe The Iron Trial is just an unlucky misfire. There are four more books, after all. Maybe Clare and Black can build something on the shaky, threadbare foundation they’ve built for themselves. But I’m not particularly optimistic.