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I bought The Iron Trial last month at the Young Adult Literature Convention where, to my delight, I was able to get it signed by the lovely Cassandra Clare. I was person number 252 of what I think was about 450 people waiting for signings--it turns out she's incredibly popular, and for good reason. Though her published work began with the Mortal Instruments series Clare actually had a fan base built up long before that with her fanfiction writing. Most notably The Very Secret Diaries of the Fellowship of the Rings and the Draco Trilogy (book-length Harry Potter fanfic which she has asked no longer be shared online...though some people might still have copies saved somewhere offline...maybe).
Holly Black also has been writing prolifically and I've loved her writing since reading her first book, Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale. Finding out these two ladies were going to collaborate on a series made me very happy. (Also, Black is from New Jersey, the best state, so yay.)

The Iron Trial is the first in what is to be a series of five books. The story follows Callum--a young boy with a limp and an affinity for magic--who is called to be tested in the Iron Trial. The Trial is a test for potential mages and whoever passes will enter the Magisterium (a magic school) for formal mage training. There's just one problem. Callum's father was a mage and is dead set against magic after losing Callum's mother in a mage war years earlier. Callum has been brought up to believe that magic is dangerous and mages are heartless, using the students at the Magisterium for their own selfish purposes. Despite trying his best to fail the trial, as his father advised, Callum finds himself apprenticed to a mage and whisked off to the Magisterium against his will. Once there Call finds himself torn between his father's teaching and his own experience with magic while also discovering that his father might be keeping a dark secret about Callum.

Yay for meeting Cassandra Clare!
This book was very fun to read. Both Clare and Black have great senses of humor and that really shone through in the writing. The characters were interesting and accessible, and continue to develop throughout the book. Call is a protagonist you can really root for--pretty normal, but still with some issues. Bullied about his limp, he's not terribly popular at school and causes trouble--mostly by accident. Unlike many fantasy protagonists, he actually has a good relationship with his dad at the beginning of the book. The plot moves quickly and was engaging enough to keep me turning the pages. This was one of those books I ended up finishing at around 1am because I didn't want to stop to go to bed.

Black and Clare have said that one of their goals in writing this series was to turn common fantasy tropes on their head, and The Iron Trial certainly did make me consider whether or not one should try to avoid tropes or jump in and change them.
A few chapters in, I couldn't help but notice how very Harry Potterish the plot was turning out to be. As a baby Call is the lone survivor of a magical massacre, is left permanently marked by the enemy (his injured leg), finds himself at a school of magic where everything is new and exciting, makes friends with a guy and a girl his age, and gradually finds out more about his own past as the story progresses.

These parallels weren't an accident. Black and Clare couldn't possibly have written this and *not* noticed they were more or less following the plot of Harry Potter. Writers often try to reclaim tropes that have come to be associated with one specific book--after all, J.K. Rowling wasn't the first to come up with the idea of an orphan discovering he was "the chosen one," so it's not fair to give negative marks to any future authors who use that trope. However, it is certainly true that if future authors are going to use it, they must find a way to make it different enough that it doesn't seem like they're copying. In The Iron Trial Clare and Black weren't trying to reclaim the Harry Potter plot so much as start out with a plot readers might expect, and then turn it around into something unexpected. They were reforming readers' expectations of the "chosen one" fantasy trope.

In my opinion, they have been only somewhat successful here. Since the plot followed Harry Potter for much of the book, the first two-thirds or so were fairly predictable. Although there were a couple twists at the end, the prologue had made one of them quite easy to foresee. I appreciate what Clare and Black are doing here, but even with the twists, there wasn't enough of a departure from Harry Potter for the plot to feel original. I realize this is the first of a five book series, so there is plenty of time to take this in a vastly different direction, but in this single first book the plot leans more toward a homage than a reclamation.

Luckily for Black and Clare, they really are fantastic writers, so even with a predictable plot there was plenty else that was unique and I didn't want to put the book down. In the end, tropes or no, The Iron Trial is great fun to read and I do look forward to the next Magisterium book.


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