A world that parallels our own and a protagonist warring against her tyrannical, anti-science Witch alternate self, Josephine Angelini’s Trial by Fire is a precursor to what seems like an exciting and entertaining read. It piques ours interests by lavishly explaining the concepts of Crucibles and Mechanics, and the functionality of Witches. It introduces a world where the citizens are feuding with its sovereign government influenced by the privileged and magically inclined officials. It even provides an expository on the principles and laws of magic. With all these components in one book, Trial seemed like it was on its way to an amazing start, but after a while, the things about the world and magic is the only real meat that this novel offers, which isn’t a lot. Trial is inchoate and relies mostly on its egregious cliffhanger to keep readers interested and lure them into reading the next book. Even if it is part one of a series, it still has to have its own conclusion.
Trial starts off slow by beginning in present day Salem, Massachusetts. Our protagonist, Lily Proctor, is pretty much allergic to everything, which is explained later due to her dormant abilities as a Crucible/Witch (although you would think because Lily was born in our world without magic that her chemical makeup would be free of magical properties. I guess that’s what makes her special.) Her mother suffers supposedly from Schizophrenia and has been known to talk to herself. None of that particularly fazes Lily because her childhood-best-friend-and-reformed-playboy Tristan is her boyfriend now, and they’re officially an item.
Thankfully it doesn’t take long for this relationship to implode.
Tristan hooks up with another girl, and Lily ends their friendship entirely. When Lily suffers an allergic reaction and is emotionally vulnerable, Lillian, the alternate version of Lily, gains Lily’s permission to take Lily from her world and to teleport her to an alternate world, a blend of medieval, modern, and diverse cultures. Lily meets Lillian, who informs Lily that she brought her to this world for a reason, but doesn’t tell her what that reason is; it’s on a need-to-know basis. Like a sane person, Lily bolts and encounters Lillian’s former Mechanic, Rowan, which leads her to meeting the alternate version of Tristan and a group called the Outlanders. As war is about to erupt, Lily just wants to go home.
Though the synapsis intrigues us with its allure of grand battles and romances, Trial doesn’t quite deliver. The minor problem is Trial meanders around its own story; its story establishes the magic and the characters. And from a marketing standpoint, I could understand advertising the romance and war aspects of the novel to sway sales. Despite the novel having the advantage with its third-person perspective, there’s only action when Lily is involved and that’s as long as Lily is conscious and clear-head enough to witness and/or partake in the battle. Reading Trial for its action-filled plot will leave you looking elsewhere.
The most intriguing character is Lillian Proctor. I admit I’m partial to strong, powerful female characters, but when there’s a character that’s as audacious as Lillian, she catches my attention. As much as the characters paint her as a malevolent villain, I suspect there’s more to her character. She’s intelligent and ambitious, which aids in her appearing cruel (and she is,) but she’s a character with secrets leading me to believe there’s more to this genocidal overlord. When she exposes her plans, it will determine the level of complexity of her character. Her counterpart, Lily Proctor, is less interesting.
Credulous and compassionate, Lily is a sharp contrast to Lillian; however, they are also similar. Lily possesses the same intelligence and gifts as Lillian, which is evident near the end of the novel. This is apparent to the other characters that are wary of her. Trial alludes to Lily’s potential and possible darker side. Although Angelini is wonderful at creating characters with duplicity, her male characters fall short of this. Rowan and Tristan are flat, banal characters. They are as interesting as cradle balance balls that only cause tension when they hit each other. The love triangle is sometimes distracting and meaningless, put into place for unnecessary drama.
The romance among the characters is awkward and borders on paternal feelings at times. Mechanics, which is what Rowan is, are what their names imply. They monitor and manage the Crucible or Witch they are assigned/bonded to. This entails knowing when their Witch is low on nutrients or energy and providing them with what they need. Along with being Lillian’s former Mechanic and lover, Rowan easily adapts to being Lily’s Mechanic, thus, begins to take care of her. It’s a likable quality in a guy, but it’s also in the form of how a parent nurses a child. It’s hard to be jazzed about a relationship like that.
Angelini’s writing is descent, but there are descriptions, such as a “pregnant pause” that makes me raise an eye brow. The style of the writing is more or less consistent and fluid. But there are still moments where I have to give pause and ask if this is incredibly clever or just terrible. If I have to give it that much thought, it’s probably not a good sign.
The ending evokes frustration and disappointment. The story and characters come to fruition right as the novel abruptly ends. It’s as we would imagine a TV show ending, except this cliffhanger would be more forgiving in a show versus a novel. The conclusion deprives not only readers but the overarching story itself. The conclusion is more broken than a part of something, which is a shame considering how much potential the overall story has. Needless to say, part two is not high on my bucket list.