Magisterium: The Iron Trial by Cassandra Clare and Holly Black
Doubleday, 2014. ISBN 9780857532503.
(Ages: 11+) Themes: Magic, Family, Boarding Schools, Disability, Orphans, Grief/Loss, Good v Evil. The Iron Trial is the first book in a new series which will appeal to middle school readers who love Harry Potter. Unfortunately, some reviewers are already casting it in a negative light because of its similarity to the Rowling books, however, it does have enough differences to make it worth a read.
Callum Hunt is a broken boy. Physically, as a baby his leg was twisted beyond repair, so now at 12, he limps and is considered weak by his peers and his teachers. But there is also damage to his psyche. He's been traumatised by his mother's death, which happened at the same time as his leg was ruined. His father has raised him to hide his magical ability, and even as he is about to sit for the examination that will allow him to enter The Magisterium, he knows his father's expectations - Cal must fail.
All this is set up in the first few chapters. It's clearly aimed at middle graders, but since we know there is a plan for five books, each one following Cal through a year at the school, we can predict a couple of things: Cal will grow up and age, and developmentally so too will his readers. And I am betting the books will progress into darker territory.
There is a range of supporting characters, and we don't know who to trust. The narrative moves at a reasonable pace. There are clues left scattered so readers can foreshadow horrible masters, jealous peers and potential love interests. Due to his impairment, Cal is used to being treated badly and left alone. But he never uses his limp as an excuse. He wants to be given the same opportunities as everyone else, and it is gratifying to see him find some friends and start to feel a part of a group.
There are a couple of unexpected, but welcome plot twists. They are probably signposted a little too obviously, but for readers who simply get caught up in the story, and don't question motives or hints, the story does play out unpredictably.
Okay, back to Harry Potter. I know people bemoan how derivative some books are, but I have to say I have kids in my library who still call Harry their favourite read, and are searching out for something similar. The Iron Trial might just fill that void.
I found it absorbing and tense, especially the concluding chapters.