I listened to The Iron Trial, by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare on audiobook, narrated by Paul Boehmer. It tells the story of Callum Hunt, or Cal, a boy who enrolls in a magical boarding school, makes friends, irritates teachers, and finds out he’s been marked from birth by the greatest enemy the magical world knows. Sounds familiar, right?
I read a lot of complaining reviews about this Middle Grade book, all accusing The Iron Trial of being a Harry Potter rip-off. Cassandra Clare is, after all, the woman who got her start by writing Harry Potter fan-fic. This is not Harry Potter fan-fic, though, any more than Star Wars is Joseph Campbell fan-fic.
The internal conflicts Black and Clare present for their protagonist are very different than those Rowling presents for Harry. For instance, as opposed to Harry, Cal has always known that he was descended from magicians and that he might have magical powers. Instead of embracing his magical heritage/destiny, he fears it, having been taught by his father that magic killed his mother and that the Magisterium, the school for magicians, is manipulative at best and dangerous at worst.
While Harry learns that he is a celebrity upon entering the wizarding world, Cal didn’t need to go anywhere to feel different or pointed-at. Cal is disabled; his leg was crushed when he was a baby. He walks with a limp and cannot engage in most sports or physical activities. This difference still haunts him in the Magisterium; even though he now has magic, he feels that he slows his classmates down in some of their tests and lessons.
While The Iron Trial certainly doesn’t deserve to be disregarded as mere fan-fic (we could have a whole talk about how that’s not even an insult, as there is some excellent fan-fic out there), that doesn’t mean it’s all that great, either. I’ll start with what worked for me.
I thought Black and Clare cultivated a naturalistic “kids voice” in the book. These kids bicker, and tease, and go off on tangents. They don’t speak in perfectly organized paragraphs. Some of the lines really cracked me up; for instance, when Cal gets bullied in middle school, he yells at kids currently beating him up, “Sorry for being awesome, losers!”
It was also great to see a disabled protagonist be both powerful — Cal’s magic is almost uncontrollable — and viscerally emotional. Black and Clare don’t give him a quick fix, either, for his disability; there’s no Skele-Gro to fix his leg. He has to work within his limitations to do almost everything, and he is resentful, sarcastic, and confident about it by turns.
However, I didn’t really like Cal. The Iron Trial gives him plenty of reason to be angry — his twisted, scarred leg; his father’s general ambivalence toward him; his difficulty controlling magic — but even so, it’s unpleasant to share his brain for the space of a whole book.
Part of not liking Cal might be Boehmer’s performance of the audiobook, which was over-the-top dramatic. Boehmer is in love with the pregnant pause; even after I speeded up the book, his pauses, meant to be significant and suspenseful, felt silly. I also wasn’t sure he caught the tone of dark or dry humor that some of the characters, Cal included, exude.
And while I generally enjoy descriptions of magical systems, this one felt too pat, too derivative for me. The mages each derive their magic from an element that they are strong in: earth, air, fire, water, or chaos. This reminded me of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Jordan‘s WHEEL OF TIME, Lackey‘s ELEMENTALS, and the list goes on. Even Terry Pratchett has taken a pot-shot at this magical system, making his fifth element the element of Surprise. I realize it might be hypocritical of me to defend Black and Clare from the charge of being unoriginal, just to turn it back around on them, but it wasn’t just the magical system. None of the descriptions of magic felt magical to me. Some were laughably mundane, as when Cal’s instructor makes him dinner. It’s So what Master Rufus does is makes him a bologna sandwich, and then transforms it into something more delicious. It’s because, in this magical system, it’s impossible to create matter from magic (thank you, First Law of Thermodynamics) but you can transform it. I appreciate the effort, but the description of the transformation was utterly unappetizing.
Finally, I didn’t see much of what I love about Black’s work in The Iron Trial. I’m mostly familiar with her short stories, which have generally knocked my socks off, but this just felt meh. I’ve noticed this before with co-written books between authors who have very different levels of fame. I’ve written about a couple of those here — Lackey and Mallory, Pratchett and Baxter — and we have surmised here at FanLit that perhaps the work is mostly that of the less experienced author, with the more experienced author acting as a sounding board (and catnip for readers). Black and Clare are more equal in their writing backgrounds and expertise than those pairings, and they both have strong followings. I wonder why Black’s voice doesn’t stand out more strongly here.