I received a copy of The Iron Trial a while ago, and was intrigued – I am all about coming of age stories with magic and violence in them. However, I kept leaving it at work, and piling other stuff on top of it, so it languished neglected for a while. When I started reading it, I finished it in an evening – partly because it is relatively short, and partly because I quite enjoyed it. It is a recent collaboration between Cassandra Clare (Mortal Instruments) and Holly Black (Spiderwick Chronicles – I’ve yet to read them).
It is a relatively standard example of children’s fiction: a young boy goes off to wizard school, makes friends and faces ultimate evils. Frankly, the major issue the book has is that it is not differentiated enough from Harry Potter – the specific characters and events are different, but the archetypes, general plot, and (sometimes jarringly) certain scenes are all too familiar. Despite the occasional sense of déjà vu, I’m not at saturation point for magical schools (I find the whole learning-and-exploring fantasy worlds thing to be immensely readable) so it didn’t really blot my enjoyment.
The characterisation is strong enough that the children don’t all feel like shallow stereotypes, the main character has an actual flaw (bust leg, not simply being clumsy), and the narrative is reasonably complex. To my shame, I didn’t actually guess the twist until it happened, which is proof positive either of my incompetence, or of a well-constructed plot twist on the part of the authors.
The magic system – mostly elemental – starts off interesting, but then moves rapidly away from its origins. I’m alright with manipulating air to create light shows, but I struggle to link the four elements to creating magical foods and flavours. However, Harry Potter failed to explain its magic either, so I guess it comes with the genre. It is just a little disappointing to be presented with something that seems to be about the careful application of opposing forces, only to watch it turn into general magicness. I find magic systems to be vastly more engrossing if they follow clear rules; it allows for surprising and dramatic applications of those rules.
It’s grittier in places than most other books aimed at the same age groups – more death, and more descriptive death. No oddly serene corpses here. That occasionally conflicts with adorable talking lizards, but it is nice not to read incredibly safe and sanitised tales of warring wizards all the time. It takes all the tension out if no one dies, and injuries are just photogenic scratches.
In all, I’m not going to rhapsodise about it but I did enjoy it; it is a perfectly serviceable example of children’s fiction, in a genre that I am absolutely fine with reading more of. It isn’t great, and it sometimes cleaves too much towards the clichés, but I’ll happily read the next one. Irritatingly, the next one won’t be released until September 2015 – I guess that is the downside of reading a book when it first comes out.