We all wear masks…

Title: The Iron TrialIronTrial

Author: Holly Black and Cassandra Clare

Publisher & Release Date: Scholastic Press, September 9

The Hook:  Holly Black doing another middle grade series. ‘Nuff said. (No disrespect to Clare, but I would have read this regardless of the co-author.)

The Lowdown (from jacket): “Most kids would do anything to pass the Iron Trial. Not Callum Hunt. He wants to fail. All his life, Call has been warned by his father to stay away from magic. If he succeeds at the Iron Trial and is admitted into the Magisterium, he is sure it can only mean bad things for him.
So he tries his best to do his worst – and fails at failing.
Now the Magisterium awaits him. It’s a place that’s both sensational and sinister, with dark ties to his past and a twisty path to his future. The Iron Trial is just the beginning, for the biggest test is still to come…”

Overall Impressions: So right from the prologue, his murdered mother’s cryptic message to “KILL THE CHILD” doesn’t bode well for infant Callum Hunt. At twelve years old, father Alastair’s ambivalence toward his child – protectiveness mingled with fear – come out in erratic ways through his attempts to prevent Call’s inclusion into the Magesterium, the magical ruling faction that is waging battle against the Chaos-obsessed Constantine and his minions. Unfortunately for Alastair, Call’s magic is strong enough that his attempts to conceal it backfire spectacularly.

Training at the mountainous Magesterium focuses on controlling and using elemental forces, including deadly elemental spirits.  Of the Mages of the Magesterium, we get the clearest sense of Rufus, Call’s master; the other masters are minimally involved in this first story. The students are drawn in broad strokes – the Friendly Classmate, the Surly Competition, the Bullied One – except for the two fellow students under Rufus, Aaron and Tamara. Their interactions with Callum and each other with the best detail in the book – the three of them navigate rocky personal issues and misunderstandings, as well as dealing with the frustrating and sometimes scary training, with cautious hope in their growing friendship. That more than anything is what I am interested in watching in the rest of the series.

Mind you, the Chaos-Ridden, with the very really possibility of them blending in like  normal, make for an excellent Big Bad; the twist at the end isn’t quite what you think it will be, I will tell you (without further spoilers).

The Highs: A new world of magic to explore, with dangerous elemental spirits! A exploration of destiny, inborn “goodness”, and the circumstances of birth! Secrets and friendship! I’m looking forward to seeing where the rest of the series goes; Black and Clare clearly have a thoughtful trajectory for their trio of student wizards.

Buzzkills:  Sneaking a wolf pup outside several times a day for walkies without being caught was, in a weird way, the most unbelievable part of the book. Dogs are loud and noticeable, and every other time they walked around it seemed like the halls are full of people.

Since any story written with the “boy wizard joins secret magic school” is going to beg comparison to Harry Potter, I was mentally comparing plot and character development the whole time I was reading. Rowling’s superb skill in characterization casts a long shadow, though the Iron Trial does do well in pulling you along quickly and building a unique mythology. I’d like to see more of the backstory of Tamara and Aaron – clearly, they have a great deal of their own baggage to deal with. Tamara’s family angst and her parents’ politics, and Aaron’s lack-of-family angst, speak to deeper issues than the characters can deal with in a single book.

The Source: Galleys from my fellow librarians.

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor a wolf pup was provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

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