I take book recommendations from friends seriously, and when Charlotte said that THE IRON TRIAL was a fun book, I went ahead and snagged it when I saw it at the library. Charlotte - diffident reviewer that she tends to be - tends toward understatement and said this was one she'd consider rereading, which is her highest compliment. I say that this series has the potential to be the American Harry Potter. Which is kind of hilarious, seeing as for ages that's all publishers were looking for... and then they gave up, and started looking for the next Hunger Games (Well, hello, Divergent. Yes, we see you waving there). If you enjoy school stories, and enjoyed the friendships and scholastic bits of the Potter books, you'll enjoy this. It's not quite the same - you won't immediately be sympathetic to the protagonist, and you'll probably find the school work as literally dull as dirt - seriously dull, and painfully boring - but I think this is one of the better twists on the idea of a magical school I've read in a bit.
Summary: Callum Hunt is fairly screwed already. His Mom died when he was an infant. His Dad is this über-serious dude who hardly ever smiles. He has this leg... thing which can't be fixed surgically, which causes him to limp and shuffle. He has lots of rowdy dark hair that's always in his eyes. And he's prickly - with a chip on his shoulder and has Attitude with a capital 'a.' Since he's always in trouble anyway, he figures it shouldn't take much to get himself kicked out of this stupid magic test his father doesn't want him to pass. Sadly, that's where Callum is wrong -- no matter what he's been told about what the testers are looking for, he passes... no spoiler there. Callum fails - at failing. And once he's past the Iron Trial, he realizes he's in a much deeper mess than he could possibly have believed. It's a good thing that there are true - if not sometimes grudging - friendships to support him, unexpected discoveries and adorable puppies along the way. Otherwise, things could get a little grim...
The cover is a little misleading, as the uniforms are described in the book as more contemporary than what the characters seem to be wearing -- and I think the faces of the characters, especially the South Asian girl's, could be more distinct, but it's definitely intriguing with the "big bad" there in the background.
Peaks: DISTURBING last words. Cranky protagonists who you don't have to like to understand. A differently-abled character who the plot lets just get on with things. Overbearing helicopter magical parents. Myriad stupid mistakes which remain unremedied. Realism, in terms of the privilege and prejudices people hold and wield. It's a big deal to have a character with a physical difference which can't be magically whisked away. No wands. No aveda fixmylega. Nada. There's just This Is How It Is, and going onward. A school story which focuses on the work part of classes. Work = painful and boring: something some authors forget, in terms of magic. A well-realized world where you pop in and forget all about the real one - which is the most you can ask from a book of fantasy.
Valleys: I honestly enjoyed myself all the way through. I'm sure this book is not perfect, but there was nothing which threw me out of the story that I can remember. Some readers will be frustrated that an entire novel was really used for setting and worldbuilding and characterization, but I get the feeling that this is going to be a series which needs us to really know the students well and the world into which Callum finds himself thrown -- so I'm fine with the measured pacing that is used.
Conclusion: This novel has myriad elements that remind me of Caroline Stevener's A COLLEGE OF MAGICS, Trudi Canavan's THE MAGICIAN'S GUILD and especially with the painful tedium, Maria Snyder's MAGIC STUDY books. Oh, and JK Rowling's HARRY POTTER. There are a lot of people who have a lot to say about how Potter-y this book is - I don't think it's a comparison that the book will escape. There's magic going on... in a school. Obviously, that's what happened to Harry Potter. However, before you leap into saying that this is just like Harry Potter, you're really going to need to read the book (is there a point in addressing this to the hundreds of people on Goodreads? No? Okay, then). Then you'll see that though this a familiar trope of Motherless Boy Has Great Power and a familiar pattern of Two Boys and a Girl Having Adventures, that's largely where the similarities end. There's nothing wrong with a book which gives a nod to a groundbreaking and important work of children's lit -- how many fairytale retellings have you read lately? Harry Potter is simply a contemporary fairytale, and if we still see books which echo reminiscently of that tale, I think we can say that's okay. Further, these are two successful and prolific writers in their own right who don't need to hitch their wagons to the Rowling star to achieve familiarity with plot and characterization -- I daresay we can look at THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES, not to mention Black's other books and the MORTAL ENGINES series and conclude that either authors can do all right on her own.
I'm probably preaching to the choir, but I'm a little astounded at the energy people put into being so very negative about this book. I found it solidly readable for MG audiences from ten all the way through to younger YA readers. I look forward to MORE diversity and creativity in its following sequels. And, also to what part the wolf puppy is going to play... and it's going to do SOMETHING interesting...
I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find THE IRON TRIAL by Holly Black & Cassandra Clare at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!