‘1. Power comes from imbalance; control comes from balance.
2. All elements act according to their nature: Fire wants to burn, water wants to flow, air wants to rise, earth wants to bind, chaos wants to devour.
3. In all magic, there is an exchange of power.
4. You can change a thing’s shape, but not its essential nature.
5. All elements have a counterweight. Fire is the counterweight of water. Air is the counterweight of earth. The counterweight of chaos is the soul.’
The above rules are the rules for magic at the Magisterium, where our protagonist, Call Hunt, is a student.
The thing that makes Call different is that he really did not want to go to magic school. His mother, Sarah, was killed in an attack by the Enemy of Death – the evil who the Magisterium are fighting to stop – so his father has been warning him off of magic since he was a very young boy. When he gets summoned to the Iron Trial to undergo tests showing his aptitude for magic, he makes a concerned effort to fail each and every aspect, so that he won’t get chosen.
However, his father’s old mentor – Master Rufus – can see what he’s doing, so he chooses him as one of his apprentices anyway, despite the fact that he has the lowest score that the Magisterium has ever seen. His father is upset, throwing a dagger across the room at Call (well, Call thinks, to him rather than at him…) but he has to go to the Magisterium anyway – he has no choice, because having untrained mages with burgeoning powers in the wild is a recipe for disaster.
Call hates training at the Magisterium: he hates Master Rufus, who forces his apprentices to sort sand into coloured piles for weeks; he hates his fellow students because they all hate him; he hates the underground caves because they’re long and hurt his injured leg. He hates it even more when he sneaks into Master Rufus’s office to contact his father, who gives him an ominous message telling him he doesn’t know who he is, and then he finds a note from his father to Rufus begging him to bind Call’s magic.
In all honesty, Call is a really irritating character. He does nothing but complain. I mean, yeah, I guess he has some reasons to at the beginning: his dad’s a bit of a nutjob, his mum is dead, he’s been forced into a boarding school that won’t even let him go home for Christmas! But when he has people being nice to him and they’re making an effort, he still sulks in the corner and assumes they don’t like him. Eventually they talk it all out and then the friendship trio solidly begins, but the angsty section in the middle there is super annoying.
Similarly, there’s a character called Jasper who really wants to succeed in the Magisterium because his family have lost everything. Call proceeds to mock him at every possible opportunity because he isn’t as skilled, and then when Jasper saves him from drowning he doesn’t say thank you, just stares at him blankly in shock. Little rude. I always hate it when characters who say that they’ve been bullied their whole lives then turn around and become horrible to people – if you’ve been bullied you know how painful it is and you don’t want to make anyone feel like that, so it seems false.
I’ve heard a lot of comparisons between this series and the Harry Potter series, but that’s selling the Magisterium short. Yes, it’s a magical, supernatural school, but so are the schools in Vampire Academy, and the House of Night, and Night School – Hogwarts does not have the monopoly on magical schools. The only other comparisons I can think of (considering the fact that I haven’t read Harry Potter so might have missed some of the subtler influences) are that it’s a group of three friends – two boys and a girl – and that there’s a big bad enemy to face off against.
The Magisterium is rather unique in the way that it’s set out. First of all, the school is placed in an underground cave system, so it’s very secretive and hidden away. Secondly, you get wristbands that allow you access to specific areas of the school – Iron in your first year, then Copper, Bronze, Silver and Gold. You can also get gemstones added to your wristband to show your achievements in the schooling system, which I thought was a very nice touch.
But the real thing that makes ‘The Iron Trial’ unique is that Cassandra Clare and Holly Black have turned away from the stereotypical “the protagonist is the chosen one” trope, and have taken a bit of a different route with the story. Yes, Call is special, but it’s his friend Aaron that is the chosen one that the school have been searching for for years. Aaron is a Makar, making him one of the only Makars in the history of the Magisterium and the only person who can rival the Enemy of Death. However, Call later finds out that he is the Enemy of Death – the Enemy was nearly dead after the battle that killed Call’s mother, so he switched his soul into Call’s body to ensure his survival.
It is all a bit farfetched, and I did have to read it a couple of times to really understand what was going on – it seemed like it was too complicated of a twist for a middle grade novel but I can see what they were trying to do, bringing the fight between good and evil into one little boy against himself. It’s clever and it isn’t something I’ve read before, but I’ll wait until I’ve read the next installment before I decide whether it worked.
If you haven’t read the Magisterium because it’s marketed as a children’s book, you can throw that reasoning out of the window now. Yes, there’s no romance, no make out sessions and no swearing, but it’s really nice to have a team of characters going on adventures with none of that other stuff getting in the way. For a book aimed at young people the language is still complex (such as ‘coruscating’ being used literally twenty times) so it definitely can appeal to an older crowd. This was a solid first installment, but it hasn’t swayed me either way – hopefully ‘The Copper Gauntlet’ will help me fall in love with the Magisterium, because at this point I’m not very bothered.