Last year I took a look at The Iron Trial, the first entry in Holly Black and Cassandra Clare’s new middle grade series about cave wizards. I concluded that it had some positive points but mostly didn’t seem particularly promising as the beginning of a multi-book saga. Well, the sequel recently came out and I decided to hop in and see if my negative assessment was correct.
The fact that I couldn’t even get half way through it probably answers that question.
At the end of the previous book our skateboard-loving hero Callum “Call” Hunt found out that he’s the reincarnation of the Enemy Of Death, an evil cave wizard who fought a war against the other cave wizards for reasons I’m still not entirely clear on. The idea was that the Enemy would hide in the guise of an ordinary child until he grew old enough to infiltrate the Magesterium (the underground cave wizard school that also seems to be the center of cave wizard government for some reason) and regain his terrible chaos magicks, but the reincarnation didn’t go according to plan and as a result Call has no memory of his former life. The situation is more awkward since his best friend who also has terrible chaos magicks is being trained specifically to fight the Enemy some day, and Call is living in fear of anyone finding out his secret.
As the book opens Call is home for the summer holidays and wondering whether his dad, who has been acting incredibly shady since the first book, knows something about the soul switcheroo. It turns out he does, and he’s planning on trying a dangerous magical ceremony to force the chaos magicks out of Call’s body. Call is understandably not enthusiastic about this and skedaddles back to the Magisterium, where nefarious things are going down with a magical artifact called the Alkahest and I stopped reading around this point but based on the end of the first book and the cover of this one I’m guessing there’s something to do with rampaging fire elementals and that the Enemy’s old followers get wind of the fact that Call doesn’t remember being their leader and decide to start shit on their own. Which could theoretically be interesting, but I’m not reading another page to find out.
For all its flaws, I blazed through The Iron Trial in less than two days and quite enjoyed myself for much of it. The Copper Gauntlet was an entirely different experience. I found myself continuously picking it up, reading a few sentences and then throwing it down again, unsure each time whether I was going to make an effort to continue. Maybe my tastes have gotten more picky in the last year, but I found that the writing has taken a marked nosedive in quality, filled with repetition and awkward sentences and clunky “he said, frowningly” constructions (we all know how much I like those).
One of my big complaints about the first book- that we don’t see enough of cave wizard society for anything to feel like it has actual stakes- is addressed early on when Call visits his rich friend’s house and gets to witness the vaguely urban fantasy inspired world that the mages inhabit outside the Magesterium (Cassandra Clare’s fingerprints are all over this part, as the scene is very reminiscent of her Shadowhunter series). But rather than enriching the book’s world, this just makes it feel less coherent and meaningful. We’re told that the war with the Enemy was terrible and almost everyone lost a relative and they’re all waiting on tenterhooks for the situation to boil over again… but there’s no sense of threat or urgency. People talk about the war in an incredibly dry, emotionally detached way and the lingering presence of the Enemy’s power is so faint it feels like the characters are all jumping at shadows. It would have been far better if the chaos-ridden animals left over from the war were a bigger threat or if the Enemy-aligned mages were actually present and living side by side with the people they once fought instead of sitting around twiddling their tumbs somewhere off-screen.
I was also disappointed by this widened scope because it clashes with what we’ve seen before. The Magisterium has a culture that’s very obviously different from that of the
muggle non-cave wizard world, where people wear different clothes and eat wacky magical cave fungus and shit, and it very much seems as if this reflects mage culture as a whole. So why does Call’s mage friend live in an urban fantasy setting where everything is more or less identical to real life, except there’s magic? There’s no feeling of cohesion to this world, no through-line. I promised myself going into this review that I wouldn’t harp on the Harry Potter similarities any more, but to draw a comparison, it would be as if the vaguely medieval aesthetic of the wizarding world didn’t extend any further than Hogwarts and people in wizard-town or wherever were using iPhones and keeping plasma TVs in their houses.
The characters are another problem. Aaron the budding Chosen One is interesting when it seems like he has a crush on Call, but is otherwise completely bland. I straight-up forgot Tamara existed before I started reading the book. There’s some vaguely Malfoy-like dude who I guess is going to become more important since he’s on the cover. And then there’s Call himself.
He’s… blah. Eh. Shrug. He exists. I couldn’t really describe his personality beyond “sarcastic, sometimes”. Finding out that he’s the reincarnation of the big bad does absolutely nothing to make him seem more interesting, mostly because he’s shown such a firm inclination to side with the Magisterium and has so roundly rejected any notion of going back to his former life that the series is going to have to jump through some mighty convoluted hoops in order to wring any tension from the situation. At the point I stopped reading he was acting like kind of a dick, but not in a way that made me worry about his future actions.
This story just isn’t grabbing me. I don’t care about the characters. I don’t care about the setting. I don’t care about the plot.
The back of the first book had the blurb “Think you know magic? Think again” and then proceeded to deliver a story about fairly unimaginative element-based magic that wasn’t terribly exciting. The Copper Gauntlet makes similar promises about good and evil, and while I suppose it’s possible that after the point I stopped reading Call’s status is used to deliver a thought-provoking examination of the nature of morality and not a trite retread of the old “are people born evil” chestnut, I’m not holding my breath.