City of Bones – Cassandra Clare

Alternative title: Holy cow! A review! I haven’t written a proper review in months. It figures it would be a bad book that inspired the first new one. I don’t have the energy to make it more than a straight-forward what-the-blazes-was-that review based heavily on my Goodreads status updates, but it’s something.

I’ll mark the spoilers.

“Funny, dark, and sexy”? Really? Where?

Like probably everyone who’s wandered in geeky circles on the nets, I’ve heard a lot about Cassandra Clare and City of Bones/Mortal Instruments/The Draco Trilogy, that strange blend of adoration and revilement that does seem to crop up with fan-fiction. Especially fan-fiction that ends up published. (No, don’t worry, I’m not going into the whole plagiarism – self-plagiarism – published – movie – how the hell did that happen thing.) I’ve read the tale, with morbid fascination, and been fairly put off the whole franchise – but look how pretty the cover is! And if a bunch of friends are willing to read it with me, then what the heck.

Yeah.

The good news first: it wasn’t completely hideous. I gave it two stars as opposed to one because it did hold my attention for the most part. I actually liked a couple of characters. There were glimmers of enjoyment, bits and bobs of hey-that-wasn’t-bad (though they were engulfed in waves of … but I’ll come to that). I was surprised at the magical system of the book’s world, as well as the setting and characters; it wasn’t purely a Harry Potter book with the names changed. And the book did teach me something: I had to look up what a featherstaff was, because I don’t remember ever hearing of such a thing before.

The problem with that last thing is I shouldn’t have had to look it up. Never at any point was there any kind of description of the weapon or what it did. I could picture it because I did look it up, but it’s not good writing to have some undefined object floating around like that.

The legend goes that it started out as Harry Potter fan fiction, and it became something of a scavenger hunt – There’s the Knight Bus… I’ll bet that was originally that character … wands … Hagrid’s flying motorcycle…Oh, that was supposed to be Lupin? – and so on. And these origins seem to explain a lot; fan fiction is, after all, aimed at people who are already very familiar with a canon, and so is obviated the need for a lot of backstory. Someone writing a fic about, oh, say, Draco Malfoy wouldn’t need to explain wands and brooms to her readers. So it’s not so surprising that when some things in the world into which this book was morphed do need explanation, the explanations can be somewhat leaden, or somewhat inadequate, or that the stitches will show where the grafts and transplants happened. In the end, though, overall, I can’t say how well the author handled exposition; between my assumptions based on the Potterverse and the many distractions faced along the way I don’t know if I subconsciously filled in blanks. I think it’s safe to say it wasn’t done very well.

There were some places where basic story-telling certainly failed miserably. One scene that stands out shows Clary meeting Hodge, described sitting behind a desk. He stands up, and Clary gasps, thinking he is a hunchback. Then she realizes “the hunch was actually a bird, perched neatly on his shoulder – a glossy-feathered creature with bright black eyes.” But – the raven was sitting on his shoulder the whole time. How could she have missed the bird then – and how on earth could someone mistake a raven for a hunchback? It’s ludicrous. It’s written for effect rather than logic or sense. And this isn’t the only example of the character’s lack of observation skills – for which read the author’s lack of ability to provide information without making her characters look mentally or optically deficient – show up, unfortunately.

Another example of poor story-telling: Clary’s mother disappears under frightening circumstances, from which Clary herself is rescued. I don’t think the words “Where is my mother?” ever came out of her mouth. Nor does it ever occur to her to call her best friend, whom she left abruptly just before all heck broke loose; they’re out of touch – that is, Clary is a missing person – for days, and I kept getting distracted by the idea that he had to be worried, and why wasn’t she asking about her mother, and seriously shouldn’t she be at the very least thinking of calling 9-1-1 by now? But she hung out with the group, and made out with Jace, and apparently forgot to even try to find out what happened or put her very best friend out of his misery. It galled, and did not fit with the loving-daughter-and-friend Mary Sue character Clary presented as otherwise.

Inappropriate levity is a problem here and there. At one point, very shortly after all heck broke loose and Clary’s mother vanished, the other teenagers who make up very nearly the entire cast of characters are sitting around cracking wise about Voldemo – er, Valentine and the situation. “That’s sort of hot,” Isabelle argued, “that evil thing.” Mmmm, mass murder – smokin’ hot. Later, the teenagers are attempting to penetrate a vampires’ nest, and blunder about chatting and kvetching and arguing for all the world as if at a party. And then they’re surprised when they find they’ve woken up the vamps.

Speaking of Valentine… What kind of name for a bad guy is Valentine? It’s a terrible name for a bad guy, is what kind. One note I made while reading was “You clean your room, or Valentine Fairchild will get you!” “Oh, good, he sounds nice.” That was when I thought his name was Valentine Fairchild. But then at 80% suddenly everyone begins talking about Valentine Morgenstern. I honestly have no idea whether I misread the bit earlier – distinctly possible, though I didn’t start really skimming until later – or whether it was a mistake, or whether like other characters he used different names … I can’t say. But honestly, “Valentine Morgenstern” is possibly worse. “Morgenstern” means “morning star”, so there’s supposed to be some kind of callback to Lucifer, I take it, but to me the name calls to mind Rhoda Morgenstern and The Princess Bride. The opposite of scary. Now, I’m not saying all supervillains must be called things like “Voldemort” (which is pseudo-French for “flight of death”) (sort of) or “Morgoth” (“black foe of the world”) or “Mordred” (which from what I see means “sea counsel”, but sounds like the word for “death” and also “dread”)… but picking a name with connotations of Cupid and Valerie Harper seems counter-productive.

Did I mention the paucity of adults in the book? This is something else that might work in terms of a Potterverse book, set in what is basically a boarding school where the kids outnumber the adults by a wide margin. In the setting to which this was updated, it really makes no sense at all. And then when the kids have to go on a dangerous mission, they go alone, with no effort to bring in an adult. I know the story has a young adult target audience, but it doesn’t make sense. Where is everyone?

On top of the oddnesses and awkwardnesses and absurdities as mentioned, there is a startling level of ignorance shown by the author (and of course the editors who let it all through). The characters who in the Potterverse would have been witches and wizards are, here, “nephilim”. This use of the word is a bizarre perversion … “we’re part angel but there may not really be angels but maybe there are although I don’t really believe in them”? Sorry. No. It’s a bit silly to use a word with a mythology already attached when you’re going to ignore that entire mythology, innit? Why not just create a new word? (The handling of werewolves and even vampires is weird as well, but I suppose it could be chalked up to an attempt at uniqueness. Failed, for me, but an attempt.)

Another mistake: there’s a mention of the ashes of the dead being used to make marble columns. That, however, is not how marble works. Another: “Gray is short for ‘Gramarye”. Not in my experience. Oh, and that’s not what an ifrit is. And: “Wolves are fast, but a rested horse is faster.” The average horse can reach about 30 miles per hour; racehorses – which I’m guessing this particular animal is not – can hit 50-60. Wolves – normal wolves – can do about 45. In most versions werewolves are stronger, smarter, and faster than normal wolves.

The worst one, for me: “…abstract Magritte paintings … This one … would be called The Stairs to Nowhere“. I was an art student once upon a time. This, in plain words, just pissed me off. Magritte was not an abstract artist. He was a surrealist. And his paintings bore wild and wonderful titles: “Dangerous Liaisons”; “The Reckless Sleeper”; “Intermission”; “The Voice of the Winds” … Get the picture (pun intended)? “The Stairs to Nowhere” as the title for a painting of a flight of stairs that … went nowhere… this would be unbearably prosaic and literal. The moral being: don’t write something about which you know nothing.

Did I mention Clary is a Mary Sue? It felt like Ms. Clare followed the step-by-step instructions in the fanfic handbook to build her, tab A into slot B, because my goodness. She thinks she’s plain, but everyone else thinks she’s gorgeous. (Well, the text does prove her observational skills are lacking.) Both the main male characters fall for her. She discovers hitherto unknown talents within herself and suddenly is flinging magic about like Dumbledore. She comes up with the ideas that save the day and kicks butt generally. Going up against some Bad Guys – which happen to be creatures Clary thought were fiction just days before – she declares “I know what I’m doing.” She says this to someone who’s been fighting Bad Guys for years. She turns out to be right. Clary Sue indeed.

Once Clare was on her way to landing a book deal (behold the restraint I demonstrate in not complaining bitterly about that) I believe one imperative was to take down all public copies of “The Draco Trilogy”, which is in a way a pity; I would pay money (up to even three dollars) to be able to compare the original to what I just read. Evidently it was meant as an alternate universe thing “diverging from canon after Goblet of Fire“, and that explains why there are some strange differences between how things (like werewolves) work in the canon and how things work in “Mortal Instruments”; the canon had not yet been established when this happened.

And, see, the fact that I just wrote that paragraph is one of my bigger problems with the book. (One.) Knowing the thing’s history, knowing that Jace was actually Draco, knowing that the stele used to be wands and that mundane people were actually muggles – all of this was extremely distracting. My mind constantly wandered off, trying to reconstruct how the original might have read. In a way, it’s not the book’s fault that in my head I heard every single one of Jace’s lines in Tom Felton’s sneering voice. It is, however, Cassandra Clare’s fault that she allowed me the room to be distracted by the book I knew used to exist rather than engaged with the book I was actually reading.

Problems … I’ve mentioned a few. There were more. Repetition (sometimes word for word), unnecessary recapping of what just happened (for those of us who were skimming, I guess), and some unintentionally comical Captain-Obvious moments. And there is one beautiful, award-worthy non sequitur that I cherish: “Get me a phone book … we’re in a police station. You’d think there’d be plenty of old ones around.” Sure; little known fact: it’s cops and phone books, not cops and doughnuts.

Here come the spoilers, next to the pic.

————————————————————-

Yes, look how homely Clary is. Shame, really.

The biggest problem I had with the writing of this thing was the sheer and simple obviousness of plot. At about 30% Hodge says something about Valentine’s son. “He had a son?” someone asks. “I was speaking figuratively,” says Hodge. Which couldn’t make it more plain that YEAH, he had a son. I would consider that writing with a sledgehammer. And given that it’s revealed early on that Clary’s mother was Valentine’s wife, why did it take these characters for-flipping-ever to realize the blatantly obvious – that said son was Clary’s full brother? Once someone named said son it also took about five seconds to figure out that said son was Jace, at which time I had to take a moment to reel in horror at the near-incest. I don’t think I’ve ever been as impatient with a character as I was with Clary as I waited for the lightbulb to come on over her head.

Basically, it didn’t take long to realize that this felt as much like a fanfic of Star Wars as of Harry Potter. Hello? Near-incestous siblings? A dark lord who happens to be their father? And so on? Note to future writers: if you’re producing a knockoff of Star Wars, you might NOT want to use the name Luke at all.

————————————————————-

 

To sum up: it wasn’t the worst book I’ve ever read. I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised; I stuck a toe in gingerly, because from some of what I’ve seen I expected to be knee-deep in slop almost immediately. But the writing wasn’t altogether horrid, nor was it – as I feared – tremendously derivative of JK, for the most part. However, the writing wasn’t good, either. As so often happens, I find it difficult to accept that what I read, with all of its manifold flaws, made it to market without further work. I admit to a tiny grain of respect at the sheer amount of work that had to have gone into converting this book from the Potterverse to a whole new world; there were sparks of originality here and there. But it needed a lot more work. The sparks simply never caught into a blaze – the ocean of slop might not have been as deep as I expected, but it was still there. I don’t entirely agree with the revilement of the book – but I certainly don’t understand the adoration of it, either.

Or the film rights.

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7 Responses to City of Bones – Cassandra Clare

  1. Your reviews always make me smile…especially when I’ve read the book. I love the way you tell it like it is.

    And because I am a glutton for punishment, I plan on reading the whole series. I’m sure you’ll see what I thought of the books. ;-)

  2. stewartry says:

    :) You’ll be the guinea pig! If there weren’t four thousand other books I want to read, I’d go ahead, but … no.

  3. Pingback: From Mary-Sue to Heroine: Rethinking Jacquel Romanov~by Janara | FanFiction Fridays

  4. calmgrove says:

    You know, I always strayed clear of these titles when browsing in bookshops, without ever picking one up to read the back cover synopses. Why? I think the jacket illustrations muttered You are not the market this book is aiming at. Now I have even less reason to linger, thanks!

  5. stewartry says:

    Very wise – very wise. Save your time for bigger and better things.

    I read things so you don’t have to!

  6. calmgrove says:

    But I’d have to read your reviews to read what I didn’t have to read … Oh, never mind!

  7. stewartry says:

    On the plus side, my reviews are shorter than the books … a little.

    Usually.

    Slightly.

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