I imprinted on Harry Potter firmly enough that I’ll read any book about a school of magic. But I actually picked up Holly Black and Cassandra Clare’s The Iron Trial, the first in a five-book series, for another reason: the main character, Callum, has a disability. All he knows is that his leg was shattered when he was young, and after ten surgeries, iron screws hold his bones together. Callum has never been told that his leg was shattered in the same magical attack that killed his mother.
Callum, who goes by Call, isn’t quite the conventional wizard-school-story protagonist, for reasons having nothing to do with his disability. Though Callum’s father taught him that magic existed, he also taught Callum to be scared of it. So when he is invited to The Iron Trial, the admissions test for the Magisterium, Call doesn’t actually want to participate. But his attempt to fail the test backfires–he demonstrates so much uncontrolled power that the school’s masters accept him, in part, to keep him from accidentally harming himself or others.
Going to the Magisterium complicates Callum’s life. He has to figure out whether to believe his father’s years of warnings against magic over what he observes for himself, and learn how to get along with the two fellow students with whom he shares living quarters. He has to control the elements and deal with school bullies, and once he has those basics in his grasp, he must confront a much bigger problem: the Enemy of Death, the requisite corrupt mage of this magical universe. Call is a 12-year-old boy with a sarcastic, sometimes delightfully annoying 12-year-old sense of humor. (“Glurp lurp,” he says over and over again to his roommates when they are served sushi, “closing his eyes and waving his head back and forth” like a fish.)
I mention these plot points and traits because they have little to do with Call’s leg; while Call’s disability informs his character, it’s hardly the focus of the story, and I appreciated that. What I liked even more was the way Black and Clare treated Call’s disability when they did mention it. It doesn’t come up all the time, but we also know that Call is always aware of it–he’ll rub his calf when it’s sore in the middle of the day, for instance–and I mentally awarded Black and Clare realism points for every one of these casual references. I never had the feeling, as I sometimes do with other books, that the authors were only mentioning Call’s leg when it was convenient for the plot.
Call is often frustrated by pain or by the fact that his leg can’t hold him up. He gets angry with himself, for being unable to do things, and with his peers and teachers, for staring at him, talking about him, or assuming he won’t be able to do things that he does want to try. Sometimes he pushes himself too hard, with unfortunate results. And sometimes he hopes, in “a small, treacherous part of his brain,” that learning magic might fix everything: when one of the Magisterium teachers mentions that some mages learn to control the elements well enough to fly, that corner of Callum’s brain whispers, “If you could fly, it wouldn’t matter so much that you can’t run.”
The magical compensation Call wishes for doesn’t come, and I was glad for that. “Fixing” his inability to run with an ability to fly would have been akin to a magical cure, and magical cures — a common trope in which a character’s disability is fixed — perpetuate the idea that the only good resolution to a story in which a character has a disability is for that disability to disappear. I related to Call’s frustrations and to his secret, treacherous wish, perhaps because I’ve read enough magical cure stories that I, too, have carried around the idea that the best disability story is a disability-fixing story. What Call actually gets at the Magisterium is the chance to learn magic, make friends, and confront evil alongside everyone else, a process I found infinitely more satisfying than his learning to fly would have been.