The first book that I’m going to review has a history in a subject that is near and dear to my heart: fanfiction. As someone who’s been on fanfiction.net since she was thirteen, I’ve seen the rise and fall of a lot of stories. Some of them became famous, or infamous, in the fanfiction world. One of these stories was the Draco Trilogy by Cassandra Clare, then called Cassandra Claire, but what’s an “i” between friends?
The Draco Trilogy has had a lot of influence on Harry Potter fandom. Things like Ginny’s full name being Ginevra and Lucius Malfoy being abusive have even hung on.1 And of course, we can all thank Clare for giving birth to the Draco in Leather Pants trope.
I’ll admit, I wasn’t interested in the story, which started as a sort of Freaky Friday plot where Harry and Draco switched bodies and moved from there. I just am not much of a Draco fan to begin with, and I thought that he was better as an obnoxious spoiled brat. Eventually the stories were taken down for plagiarism, and Clare’s account was deleted. She was basically rephrasing huge parts of dialog, scenes, descriptions, and even plot ideas from classic fantasy writers2 and claiming that it was hers. Since the story had a massive fan following, people raised a stink about Clare’s stories being deleted. Some took down their stories from the site, and many fans still refuse to believe the plagiarism thing. Having read the story, from the guy who actually reported the plagiarism, it seems like it was a pretty clear case of it.
At any rate, Clare has pretty much disowned the series, at least verbally.3 She took down the story, and you can only get it on a few other sites that saved the story themselves. That doesn’t mean a whole lot, as I’m about to show you.
Clare, as most of you know, went on to publish a book called City of Bones, the first in the Mortal Instruments series (at that time a trilogy). Here’s our official summary taken from Amazon:
When fifteen-year-old Clary Fray heads out to the Pandemonium Club in New York City, she hardly expects to witness a murder—much less a murder committed by three teenagers covered with strange tattoos and brandishing bizarre weapons. Then the body disappears into thin air. It’s hard to call the police when the murderers are invisible to everyone else and when there is nothing—not even a smear of blood—to show that a boy has died. Or was he a boy?
This is Clary’s first meeting with the Shadowhunters, warriors dedicated to ridding the earth of demons. It’s also her first encounter with Jace, a Shadowhunter who looks a little like an angel and acts a lot like a jerk. Within twenty-four hours Clary is pulled into Jace’s world with a vengeance, when her mother disappears and Clary herself is attacked by a demon. But why would demons be interested in ordinary mundanes like Clary and her mother? And how did Clary suddenly get the Sight? The Shadowhunters would like to know. . . .
Exotic and gritty, exhilarating and utterly gripping, Cassandra Clare’s ferociously entertaining fantasy takes readers on a wild ride that they will never want to end.
This is an ambitious book. It wants to be the next Harry Potter, and it really is trying to be. The problem is that the fanfiction roots show so clearly that readers who know about them will either snicker appreciatively or have deja vu about many, many fanfics about how a normal girl meets the bad boy Ensemble Darkhorse of the series and they fall in love in and somehow their love leads to the end of some rather toothless evil. You heard me, people: this is self-insert HP fanfic with the names and locations changed to make it legal.
I will give Clare her credit: this story does have a plot, and it is a potentially interesting plot. If only she didn’t pause it so much and focused more on her plot and less on her romance.
Basically, the plot revolves around Clary4 Fray, a girl who accidentally sees three people kill another kid in some underage club. They mention that Clary shouldn’t have been able to see any of them, and when she tries to report what she saw, no one can see the body or the three killers. Even her best friend, Simon, who obviously has a thing for her and looks strangely like Harry Potter, doesn’t believe her.
The next day, Clary’s mother starts making seemingly frantic plans to leave New York, where the story is set, but Clary is wangsting too much about how she wanted to go to art school to notice. She goes out with Simon to some coffee shop despite the fact that she’s grounded, runs into one of the killers, and gets a call from her mom not to come back home. Clary, acting stupidly but at least somewhat sympathetically, goes back home to see what’s happened only to get attacked by a monster and saved by those same three kids as last time.
Like any good Sue, she’s knocked unconscious and wakes up in what is essentially a secret base for what are called Shadowhunters, humans who have taken in angel blood and acquired magic powers. They are supposed to maintain order in the supernatural world but really just parade around thinking they’re better than everyone and everything. It is explained to Clary that she shouldn’t be able to see the monster that attacked her or the Shadowhunters because she is a mundie (read: Muggle). Despite this obvious prejudice, they are curious about her, and Clary wants to find out what happened to her mother. As such, Clary joins up with them and tags along to see if she can find any clues about her mother. All the while she hears rumors about how a man called Valentine, who is considered dead and was something of a terror to the Downworlders, as all supernatural things are called, is very much alive and gaining power again.
This thing sounds a whole lot more interesting and exciting than it actually is.
The problem is not that there’s no plot; the problem is how the plot is handled. There are long periods where Clary seems to completely forget about her mother in order to spend more time learning about the Shadowhunter Jace, and his almost over-the-top abusive past. Things such as the fight between the werewolves and the vampires are introduced but not really explored, the plot drags in several places as the protagonists focus on what they’re going to wear to a party or something just as inconsequential, and the logic of Valentine’s evil plot, which has something to do with creating more Shadowhunters with the Cup of Awesome, AKA the Mortal Cup, and siccing them on the unsuspecting supernatural world, is confusing and full of holes.
Clary also shows times where she’s honestly more interested in her developing powers than in her missing mother. Once Clary and the others realize that she must be a Shadowhunter5 who has had some kind of spell blocking both her memories and her powers, she is perfectly willing to travel to the City of Bones, which is where some of the most powerful Shadowhunter mages who specialize in mental block type things live. Even though there’s not much of a chance that this is going to help her mother. She is also more interested in going to a magical party hosted by the almost painfully gay Magnus Bane, who also knows something about her mental block, than in finding information about her mother. There is also the matter of how she happily drags her friend Simon with her during these little adventuresand gets him turned into a rat and almost killed by vampires, which has no bearing on the story at all, and only learns more about her mother through plot convenience.
The plot pauses for large amounts of time for Clary to learn about our villain, Valentine, and his past history. While it is interesting to learn about his motivations and why he wanted to kill all magical things, it is not practical when you think of the other things Clary could be doing, such as learning how to fight whatever took her mother or trying to figure out just what took her mother and why. Granted, Clary slowly learns that her mother was married to Valentine6 before marrying her dead father, and that her mother was probably hiding from Valentine, but her actions don’t ring true for a fifteen-year-old girl whose mother just disappeared into thin air.
After some very confusing events including a minor character betraying Clary and some more or less pointless romantic tension, there is a confrontation between Clary, Jace, and Valentine which reveals that Clary and Jace are siblings and Valentine is the father of them both. Valentine eventually escapes with a the Cup, and while Clary does find her now-comatose mother, the whole thing is treated as secondary to the fact that Jace and Clary can no longer pursue their love.
As I said, the story does have a plot, and, in the hands of a good writer, it would have probably been a good one. Several things, such as the history of the war, the fact that Clary’s mother vanished, and Valentine’s plan to create an army could all have been potentially interesting. The problem was that the plot became confused at the end, and the romance took the forefront. As it is, the only thing I can say about this plot is pretty much what people say about the Draco Trilogy: stuff happens.
As a book that really wants to be Harry Potter, there are a lot of characters. Some of the background secondary characters are actually pretty good, and, because the book is in third person limited, it’s actually possible to get a feel for them. But, sadly, I’m focusing on our main characters, because they are the ones who really need to be examined.
Clary Fray is our protagonist, who bears a striking resemblance to Clare herself. She’s shown to enjoy drawing at the beginning (but doesn’t really seem interested as time goes on) and actually displays more survival instincts than a lemming. She is also an awful friend, an awful daughter, and an awful person. She never defends her so-called best friend from being sneered at for being a mundie by people she doesn’t even know, frequently forgets about the fact that her mother has been kidnapped and may be dead in favor of romance, and, the moment that the Shadowhunters turn up in her life, goes into ‘humanity is icky’ mode.7
Jace Wayland8 is our protagonist/badboy love interest for this novel. This kid is a piece of work. He is sociopathic. Jace actually enjoys killing things rather than just killing because, you know, it’s his job. He is arrogant and doesn’t seem to see others as actually having feelings, making such lovely statements as: “Declarations of love amuse me. Especially when unrequited.” He is stupid. (Oh, yes, I have mystical powers that are said to come from an angel, holy and religious objects do hurt monsters and demons, but I don’t really believe in angels or an afterlife or much of anything.) His angsty, abusive past is cliché, over-dramatic and overdone. He treats Clary like dirt, and he doesn’t seem to show any kind of redeeming value other than the fact that he’s good-looking. I almost have the feeling that this book is some kind of fanfic from an alternate universe where Jace is a secondary friend/rival character. Oh, wait, this is Harry Potter fanfic, of course!
Simon Lewis is Clary’s best friend, and he is awesome. Seriously, he’s snarky, funny, has interests outside of Clary, and tries to adapt to a situation which he never believed could exist and, honestly, I think he should break out of this canon and go hang out with Leah Clearwater, Charlie Swan, Pre-Eclipse Jacob, Murtagh, Zyn9 and possibly Aphrodite and Elliot from House of Night, and go fight crime or something. He’s pretty much abused throughout the entire book: getting turned into a rat, having his love interest, Clary, completely ignore the fact that Jace treats him like crap. He probably has even more hurt in store for him as he is not the Designated Love Interest. I feel for you Simon. You made the book. When I was fifteen, I would have wanted to date you.
Alec Lightwood is our Token Gay Guy. And that’s all. Seriously, this guy has no purpose in life other than to have a crush on Jace (because even the guys want this ass) and be jealous of Clary. Oh, and to appeal to Clair’s massive yaoi fanbase so that they can’t be accused of being stupid yaoi fangirls because now their slash fanfic has some root in canon. Oh, Jace treats him like crap too. Jace treats everyone (including his so called blood brother or whatever who has a crush on him) like crap. He doesn’t contribute to the plot, and even though he’s supposed to be able to fight, we rarely see him doing much of anything. What is the point of his character again?
Isabella Lightwood, like her brother, is mostly unimportant to the novel. She’s mostly there to be pretty and make Clary feel speshul because Jace likes Clary better than Isabella. She has a brief thing with Simon, but it’s passed off as nothing because, as Isabella is a Scary Sue, she couldn’t actually have tender emotions towards a normal person or like Simon because he’s funny, sarcastic, nice, and probably a fun guy to be around. Once again, what is her reason for existing again?
Valentine10 is our main antagonist for the novel. He’s…er…supposed to be sinister. The problem is when you hear his backstory, he’s actually more sympathetic than the good guys, and yeah… As far as he is concerned, the stuff about his relationships with the cast are like a combination of Voldemort and Draco Trilogy Lucius. He’s the abusive father that Lucius is in the fanfics (up to and including copying a story about a falcon near verbatim from the Draco Trilogy) and yet he’s fulfilling the role of a white haired Voldemort. I think that, if Valentine had a better name and was more unlikable than Jace, I could have accepted him as something of a well-intentioned extremist without too much trouble. The problem was that I hated Jace more.
I hate these. Particularly when it’s not a love triangle because the girl is only interested in one of the guys, but it’s treated like one. It’s a staple of fanfic, and it’s in here. Even though it really doesn’t add to the story.
Obviously there’s one between Jace and Clary and Simon, but it’s completely clear from the third chapter on who’s going to win. The whole thing could have been taken out without really hurting the novel or the characterization all that much.
Actually, it might have helped things make a little more sense.
I’m not going to lie. I like the setting. I love fantasy done in a more or less modern setting. It can be fun, and interesting, and just awesome, and this book really tries to deliver that. As I said, it’s trying to appeal to the Harry Potter fanbase, and the setting does a good job of that. Even the Shadowhunter base, which needs to be explained some more, and the titular City of Bones are interesting ideas. I wanted more, and that’s a good thing.
Though some details are shall we say…not well explained, the overall idea is good. Therefore, I’ll give her a pass on it.
Clare can write dialog. It’s snappy, it reveals character, and it sounds mostly like things that a person would say. It also leads to some potentially funny conversations. So, no objections there.
Only…well…her dialog was the thing that was really caught for plagiarism. I’m not going to say that she made the same mistake, but there’s little actually original going on in the dialog, and those things that are original aren’t really paid much attention to.
The third person point of view is really the novel’s strongest point. I’ve been flooded with a lot of first person things lately, copying from Twilight and such, and to be able to step back and have some objectivity really helped. Her use of it worked well, and it conveyed the story a whole lot better than it would have if we had to wade through Clary’s head.
The actual sentence structure…wasn’t the best. I’m really not in the position to be taking potshots since I’ve got a love of really complicated sentences and have my fair share of typos and grammatical errors, but then again, her writing is supposed to be professional. Mine isn’t. Clare is too fond of adjectives and she tries too hard to sound like she knows how to write, flaunting her vocabulary until her writing comes across as…shall we say, violet.
In the Draco Trilogy, it wasn’t a big deal. It was free, decent quality, and I really didn’t care about some of the picky little things like flow and such. In a published novel, things are different. I’ve put down books Tithe by Holly Black simply because the sentence structure just was so awkward to me that I didn’t want to wade through the whole thing. While it wasn’t bad, it needed work, so, yeah, points off.
Er…being human is stupid and boring? Date the jerkoff because he’s sexy? Abuse is hot? Albinos are evil, evil people? If you’re a girl and you’re pretty, you’re probably a jerk?
Really, I think that the book is much like Harry Potter in pushing ‘racism is evil’ as a main theme, but the theme is simplistically handled here, and the other themes just seem to stick out and take more prominence than the main one simply because it is so simplistic.
As a folklore buff, I can say flat-out, this is a mess. While Clare’s done some research about angels and such, she doesn’t seem to understand the other creatures, such as the Fair Folk, and the more particular aspects of the generally accepted ideas about angels.
And don’t tell me it’s fiction so she can do what she wants. Angels are not like vampires. No one actually believes that vampires exist anywhere outside of folklore and movies anymore. If you want to make your vampire sparkle, you’re going to make me roll my eyes, but I’m not going to call you out. Angels are completely different as they are associated with religion. People actually believe in their existence, and they will get offended.
Not that I wouldn’t get a kind of thrill to see vampires that are actually written according to folklore, but that’s beside the point. I’ve seen so many ‘oh all the stories are wrong’ vampires that a novel where they weren’t wrong would really break the cliché.
Her ideas of vampires and werewolves come almost completely out of movies: even the idea of it being a ‘sickness’ and such. I honestly don’t think she’s done any research at all for these, and just wanted vampires and werewolves to be fighting one another. Even though she, like most authors, doesn’t even know where this idea came from.
Her runic magic system is interesting. I wasn’t sure about how it worked at some points, and it seemed like it would be a really bad thing to have to worry about in a quick fight, but it was (mostly) original. So, I’m happy enough with that.
I wanted to like this book. I really, really wanted to like it. But I just don’t. The main character is annoying, the plot gets stupid at the end, the love interest is a creep, and any potential amongst the supporting characters is ignored.
Do I hate the book? No. It has some legitimately good ideas and character interactions. Some of the minor characters, such as Dorothea the fortune teller, really had some potential. So, no, I wouldn’t go around saying how this was the worst thing I’d ever read.
City of Bones reads just like what it is: a well written fanfic where the characters were renamed, the setting changed, and some details were altered so it was legal. The core remains the same, as do the characters. It’s funny, it has action, but it’s still fanfic.
Maybe the next novel in the series will help distance the story, but I somehow doubt it. I suppose I’ll find out once I manage to get my hands on a copy from my library.
Score: 3.5 out of 10
1 I’m still always finding abusive Lucius fics even though it’s pretty clear from the last books that he wasn’t.
2 Or Buffy. Or Black Adder. Or about anything else that she managed to come in contact with.
3 She’s also disowned The Very Secret Diaries, a Lord of the Rings fanfic which was admittedly pretty funny.
4 Clare? Clary? Come on, Clare, you’re a fanfic writer; you should know about obvious signs for a Sue.
5 Because she couldn’t possibly be human.
6 Which has nothing to do with her I’m sure.
7 This isn’t the first time that I’m going to rant about this in YA fiction, so get used to it.
8 Hai Draco Trilogy Draco! I didn’t miss you!
9 The only half-way sympathetic character in Legend of Rah and the Muggles
10 Hai Lucius Malfoy! You looked better with long hair!