Posted on March 8, 2013 | Back to Literature
REVIEWED: The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
Here be spoilers.
City of Bones is the first in the series of highly successful The Mortal Instruments books about a seemingly average teenaged girl tied to a hidden world of magic, monsters and metaphysical conspiracy. This first book introduces us to fourteen-year old Clarissa "Clary" Fray, who witnesses a strange group of teenagers murder a boy in the back room of a nightclub.
It turns out these violent young people are actually Shadow Hunters and their victim was a demon in disguise. Shadow Hunters are a type of metaphysical ranger who track down hell-spawn any time it penetrates the human world. These mystical, tattooed warriors are usually invisible to ordinary people (whom they call "mundanes"), but for some reason Clary can see them. This isn't the only unusual thing about Clary... Following the abduction of her mother, the young woman begins to discover her amazing metaphysical pedigree, although it's been carefully concealed from her.
She ultimately ends up under the protection of sixteen-year old Jace Wayland, the leader of the Shadow Hunters. Jace leads Clary on a violent odyssey through an unseen world of vampires, werewolves, sorcerers and demons as they struggle to recover both the kidnapped woman and a powerful relic called The Mortal Cup. The cup was hidden by Clary's mother to keep it from an evil (and apparently Jewish) sorcerer called Valentine Morgenstern. Along the way, Clary's assisted by her nebbish best friend, Simon; and her would-be-father-figure-cum werewolf, Lucian Graymark.
As I worked my way through City of Bones, I broke with tradition and looked at some other reviews of this title. It's not something I like to do, because I don't want anyone else's opinion coloring mine – even accidentally. But I was curious if others were finding Clare's work uncomfortably similar to that of J.K. Rowling and George Lucas. Thankfully, it wasn't just me. In fact, if I had to describe City of Bones to someone, I'd say it was part Harry Potter, part Star Wars with a little Twilight sprinkled on top to make it sparkly. And although its derivative nature no doubt had a lot to do with it becoming an international best seller, it isn't a good piece of young adult fiction. (Apologies to all you devotees out there, but it's true.)
The further I got into the text, the harder it was for me to excuse the obvious rifling of other story-lines. Consider Clary for a second. Not only does she have the Potter-esque backstory mentioned above, but it turns out she and Jace are siblings, and their dark lord father (Valentine) spearheaded a revolt against the democratic government of the shadow world called The Clave. (Valentine never actually chokes anyone to death by pinching his fingers together, but the similarities to another dark lord are obvious enough that perhaps he doesn't need to.) Clary and Jace are initially unaware of their shared bloodline. It helps that they look nothing alike (something Clare takes care to note), as though the rules of heredity don't apply in the Shadow Hunter realm. As a result, there's an uncomfortable attraction between the two and the reader has to suffer through Jace's heavy-handed flirtations like when he quips: "If you wanted me to tear my clothes off you should've just asked..." Thank The Force Luke Skywalker never said anything like that to Princess Leia! Awkward.
The character of Jace is one of my biggest problems with City of Bones. Although we're supposed to accept Jace's unpleasant nature as the product of a tortured past and see it all as strangely provocative, he has few redeeming qualities and usually comes off as a giant prick. Naturally, Clary's infatuated with him because even confident, self-reliant young women like her are putty in the hands of mean-spirited but really hot dudes. Right? Isn't that how it works?
As if putty-like Clary and mean-spirited Jace weren't enough, there's also a closeted gay character – Jace's best friend Alec, who's secretly in love with the Shadow Hunter extraordinaire. Unfortunately, what could've been a nice subplot about prejudice or a teen struggling to accept his sexual orientation is wasted. It seems The Clave isn't an open-minded organization, so poor Alec suffers in silence, reduced to a catty stereotype who becomes the object of infatuation by a much older and deeply corrupted warlock. (Gay youth, go read Will Grayson, Will Grayson if you want something a bit more empowering! Seriously!)
Aside from the dislikable characters, the language of the book is also a distraction, filled with cloying descriptions and weird analogies which often render it pompous and nonsensical. By the time the final showdown came, I was groaning my way through it. It concludes like a second-rate sitcom where everyone's A-OK and nothing really changes. In fact, the bad guy escapes, the Shadow Hunters fail to retrieve the Mortal Cup, Clary's mom is in a coma, and everyone else recovers just fine from what we previously thought were fatal injuries. Of course, this is because Clare was planning a series of books and she needed to leave some loose threads to tie up later. Okay, I get that. But you only need to leave some threads loose... not all of them! The result is a story which feels both unfinished and is deeply unsatisfying.
The book has been adapted into a movie starring Lily Collins (Mirror, Mirror), Jamie Campbell Bower (Twilight) and Kevin Zegers (lots of stuff, including the quite excellent Frozen and Transamerica). It hits theaters in August 2013.
May the Force be with us all.