The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones
by Cassandra Clare
Warning: I did not like this book. This is not a positive review. Also, contains major spoilers.
I was going to open this review by saying something negative about Stephanie Meyer and her quote on the cover, but I realized that wouldn’t be fair because despite my strong dislike of the Twilight series, I found The Host to be quite a good read.
“Good read” is not a title I would bestow upon City of Bones, the first of author Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series. Still, despite my strange love of The Host, Meyer’s cover quote is oddly reflective of Clare’s awkward writing style, but more on that later.
“The Mortal Instruments series is a story world that I love to live in. beautiful!” – Stephanie Meyer
City of Bones is a long, over-written book about fifteen-year-old Clarissa “Clary” Fray, whom we first meet on a Sunday (of all the days) while she waits in line for the “all-ages [goth] club” Pandemonium.
We’re also immediately introduced to her best friend, Simon, the glasses wearing geek who she unceremoniously drags around town. Clare doesn’t bother building any relationships between Clary and Simon, and Clary spends the entire chapter ignoring almost everything Simon says. This is foreshadowing the rest of the book, in which Clary continues to treat her “best friend” like shit.
Clare doesn’t waste any time involving Clary in the, for lack of better word, action and soon Clary finds herself involved in the dark underbelly of the magical world. Okay, that last bit was wishful thinking. Instead Clary finds herself inexplicably attracted to a patronizing young lad named Jace and hangs out in a mansion.
The first fifty pages of City of Bones are the most hopeful. While Clary is busy acting like a typical teenager, exciting and potentially interesting things are happening around her. When her mother (Jocelyn) is kidnapped, Clary returns home to look for her, and is attacked by a demon. And then she goes to live with Jace while they conduct a leisurely search for Clary’s mother. The next 200 pages are almost entirely exposition. We are fully introduced to the cast of characters, all with forcedly deep back stories. There’s:
- Alec, a quietly attractive boy who hates Clary for no reason (because he is in love with Jace)
- Isabelle, the sister of Alec, and the “sexy one”, who also hates Clary for no reason (because she liked being the only girl)
- Hodge, the wise, bookish teacher, who doesn’t actually say anything wise
- Luke, Clary’s mom’s version of Simon, who isn’t very well explained until about 400 pages in the book, but is mentioned on every other page
- Magnus Bane, a sassy Asian hipster warlock living in Brooklyn
We also learn about the major baddie(Valentine) and his baddie buddies (the Circle), some vague form of government (the Clave) and a supernatural peace treaty (the Accords). Are you tired yet? I know I am. None of it seems very threatening. Valentine isn’t scary. The demons aren’t scary. The vampires aren’t scary. No one ever feels like they are in danger.
Clare tries really hard to build a complete and tangible magical sub-world, but sadly, she fails. While the story itself isn’t that bad, the characters are the worst forms of cliché and the dialogue is distracting and unrealistic. I didn’t really want to bring it up, but most people know City of Bones started as Harry Potter fanfiction, and this is glaringly obvious. Whatever redeeming qualities the plot may have had (lost amidst bad pacing and excessive exposition) were completely ruined by the actual writing.
What do I mean by that? Let me show you.
In this scene, Clary has convinced Jace to let her return to her apartment and look for her mother, despite just waking up from a three-day demon-poison-induced sleep. Alec has asked if he can come with them.
“No.” Jace didn’t turn around. “That’s all right. Clary and I can handle this on our own.”
The look Alec shot Clary was as sour as poison. She was glad when the door shut behind her.
And here’s another random snippet from another scene:
“And we have the place to ourselves. Alec and Isabelle hate it up here. They have allergies.”
Clary shivered, though she wasn’t at all cold.
These are just instances of, in my opinion, character actions and reactions that just don’t make sense.
Another great line:
The apple tasted green and cool.
Now here’s my all time favorite part:
“Dios mío.” The voice was male, amused, speaking a liquid Spanish. “You’re not from this neighborhood, are you?”
He stepped forward, out of the thickest of the shadows. The shape of him evolved slowly: a boy, not much older than Jace and probably six inches shorter. He was thin-boned, with the big dark eyes and honey-colored skin of a Diego Rivera painting. He wore black slacks and an open-necked white shirt, and a gold chain around his neck that sparkled faintly as he moved closer to the light.
I mean Holy Latino Stereotype, Batman! Did you manage to get all of that? He’s a fucking Diego Rivera painting. So, basically, this:
Little details aside, there were larger stylistic problems that also distracted me. For instance, almost the entirety of the book is written in the third person, from Clary’s POV. We don’t know the thoughts of every character, which is why Clary is continuously confused by people and words. And why their actions don’t make any sense to me either. And THEN when we are 323 pages into the book, Clare randomly switches to Jace’s perspective. The only real reason for this is so we can hear Jace thinking how perfect Clary is and how he wants to take care of her.
He leaned against the door frame, ignoring the kick of adrenaline the sight of her produced. He wondered why, not for the first time. Isabelle used her beauty like she used her whip, but Clary didn’t know she was beautiful at all. Maybe that was why.
[. . . ]
She took a deep breath and looked up at him. Her eyes were full of uncertainty. An unfamiliar urge rose inside him: the urge to put his arms around her and tell her it was all right. He didn’t. In his experience, things were rarely all right.
After two pages of Jace’s perspective, we switch back to Clary. And then 60 pages later we have an entire chapter as told by Luke. This chapter works a little better, because it’s essentially a really long monologue, but book-design-wise the text isn’t differentiated from the rest of the book, so it takes a couple of pages to get used to. It also takes a while to get used to the fact that there are no interjections from Clary (who, at this point, is always interjecting with something stupid or obvious). There are no quotations marking dialogue, no descriptions of what Clary or Luke are doing during this whole speech. I mean, they have to be doing something.
The reason I have such a huge problem with these two changes of perspective is because they’re not announced. In Jace’s case there’s absolutely no reason to change to his POV other than romantic fan service. In Luke’s case, it’s just a whole bunch of telling. A long, long story-within-a-story that could have been broken up and revealed over the course of the book. Instead, it’s hinted at (but let’s be honest, if you didn’t know Clary was Valentine’s son from the first mention of his name, you need to rethink your life), but Clary is fully oblivious.
Which brings me to my final gripe with this book (and a lot of other YA fiction): Clary is a vapid, empty shell of a character. She spends most of the time screaming “Jace!” or “Simon!” or just screaming in general. Only once does she actually stop and think things through, but otherwise she is completely dependent on the two competing males in her life. Her sole defining personality trait is that she’s mean to anyone who tries to help her. Like Bella Swan of Twilight she is a shell in which young female readers can place themselves. By giving her almost no identifying traits, she becomes sadly identifiable.
If Clary had some sort of strength in her, the rest of the book would improve dramatically. If only Clary had drive or something that defined her, beside the men in her life. Even her mother’s kidnapping is overshadowed by some comparatively tame boy troubles. As I said before, this isn’t just a problem with City of Bones, I’ve noticed it in a lot of other books, and it troubles me. I think it’s no wonder young (and old) women think they need to be in a relationship to be happy. This is the only message to be found in a lot of YA books. Female protagonists need to be wanted to be special or interesting, and the main female protagonists almost always degrade themselves by comparing their looks to those of another female character. In this case, Clary resents Isabelle’s looks and degrades her own because she sees herself as “cute”, but not “beautiful”.
One redeeming quality of this book, is that Clary and Isabelle do verbally acknowledge that they had no real reason to dislike each other and one of my favorite (though cheesy) lines was something said by Isabelle:
“And I guess I resented you at first, but I realize now that was stupid. Just because I’ve never had a friend who was a girl doesn’t mean I couldn’t learn how to have one.”
I think that’s a nice message.
It still doesn’t make up for Clary’s dependency on Jace and Simon, but at least there is a potential for female camaraderie in future books. Not that I’ll ever find out; I don’t plan on reading any more of the series—though I might see the upcoming film just to see if they improve upon any of Clare’s storytelling foibles.
Liked City of Bones? Have a bone to pick (haha) with me about this review? Leave a comment below! 🙂