The Iron Trial, by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare

The Iron Trial, by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare (Scholastic, September 2014, upper middle grade), follows a familiar pattern, but includes sufficient depths of worldbuilding and  imagination and  twistiness to make it work very nicely indeed as its own thing.

Familiar pattern 1:  a boy (a smart-aleck misfit) finds he has magical powers, and is chosen to attend a special school for magic, run by mages in a collective known as the Magisterium.

Differeneces:  Callum Hunt, the boy in question, did not want to be chosen, and wants to fail.  If he fails, his father will be happy, and he won't have to worry about being subsumed into the warped underground world of the Magisterium that his father has warned him about (the elemental mages are based in a cave system modeled on Lurray Caverns in Virginia, a truly magical place that I love).    He is not a golden boy of obvious specialness--he is prickly, uncooperative at school, and a smart aleck.  And he has a bad leg--multiple surgeries haven't been able to fix his limp.   (And this isn't just a handicap-as-accessory-- Callum can't forget about it, and the authors make sure the reader realizes this, and magical healing isn't an option).

 Familiar pattern 2:  The boy has great magical potential, and is taken in by the number 1 mage teacher as one of his three apprentices.  The reader (ie, me) wonders if he is a Chosen One of Specialness, and is grateful not to have to read a rhyming prophecy of distressing scansion.

Differences:   Well, maybe Callum is special--there's certainly things about him that the reader (and Callum) wonder about.  For one thing, Callum's dying mother wanted his father to kill him when he was an infant (we learn this right at the beginning, so it's not a spoiler).  For another thing, there's the whole business of why Callum's father is so determined that he not learn magic.  But I shan't say if he is Chosen or not....it is a twisty journey that leads to the answers,  and better left unspoiled.

Familiar pattern 3:  At magic school, he makes two good friends, a boy and a girl, and the girl is smart and determined, and the boy is a truly nice sort, ready to be friends even though Callum is all prickly.  There is a mean boy who wants to be better at magic than Callum.

Differences:  They aren't named Hermione and Ron and Draco.  They are different in other ways, as well...........

Familiar pattern 4:  There is a bad magic dude, who caused a war that decimated the previous generation of not bad magic users.   The Magisterium  is worried that the bad dude and his chaos-warped minions are going to rise again and fight more.  But before we get to that point, we have lots of time to read about the threesome at school, learning a. magic and b. to trust each other.

Differences:  Trust me on this one.  Riveting twists!  (if twists can rivet).  Riveting questioning of what makes a person who they are!

So the whole ensemble is a really satisfying story, full of lots of lovely small mundane details and larger, un-mundane details about learning magic, and even larger details describing various adventures and confrontations, building up to the big plot happening.  

It's one I can imagine wanting to re-read (if the number of books in my tbr pile ever diminishes sob sob).  And that is pretty much the best compliment I can pay a book.

I will also pay it the compliment of not handing my review copy on to the library, but instead handing it to my handy member of the target audience, pretty sure he will enjoy it lots too (he is currently reading The Witch's Boy, by Kelly Barnhill, and has told me he will hand that one over to me when he's done, pretty sure I will enjoy it lots too right back at me).

Bonus:  illicit wolf puppy of great cuteness kept secretly by Callum and his two friends in their underground rooms. 

Final answer: very good indeed.

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


  1. I have an ARC waiting for me right now! I had loaned it to our awesome school secretary, who also made parallels to Harry Potter, but hey, it's got an illicit cute wolf pup! Will have to take a look sooner rather than later!

  2. So glad you liked this. Me too. And your review really shows how a familiar theme can be made different. Definitely twist in the story too.

  3. We just had this at our book fair and I hadn't heard of it. Thanks for the review.

  4. The Witch's Boy was so good.

    I thought this one was a bit too similar to HP, but thought the ending promised good things for the next book.

  5. Oh, YAY! I've heard a lot, but you're the first person I know who's done a review, so huzzah that it's good. It also gives me hope to see besties write a book together and make it work. It's nice to see Holly Black returning to MG where she started - and dragging Cassandra Clare along for the ride.

  6. Ha, ha had to laugh over not having any "rhyming prophecy." I also really enjoyed this book, especially the wolf pup and Warren. I had wondered what Caverns the authors chose for the setting, it does add lots of mystery to the story. Great review and breakdown between the familiar and differences.

  7. What! The protagonist has a physical disability that

    1. actually inconveniences him
    2. can't be cured by magic
    3. doesn't make him into a saint or a villain?

    I'm there! :-)!

  8. I am extremely happy to read your review of this one because I was sceptical of the...well, everything. I have a love/hate relationship with books from both authors and am always worried when authors like that experiment with another reading level. I was worried this would be a little too unoriginal. Your breakdowns helped me decide that, yes, I am looking forward to this book! Now if only my library would order it... ;)

  9. I started this book last night and am now off to ignore making dinner to finish it.


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