Book: City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
Series: Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments, no. 1
Genre: YA urban fantasy/supernatural/romance
Content for the sensitive reader: Dirty jokes, plenty of mild to strong language, typical fantasy violence, heavy focus on characters’ appearances/body image, toxic relationships, fantasy racism, heavy flirtation/mild romance, witchcraft, vampires, werewolves, 3 total side character deaths.
BookmarkedOne Rating: 6/10
Audiobook narration: Mae Whitman, 9/10
VERY MILD SPOILERS: read at your own risk.
Let me start by saying I love the concept. There’s a hidden world you can’t see filled with all the monsters and heroes you always knew had to exist, brushing shoulders with you right this second. And sometimes, monsters and heroes are one and the same.
Or maybe it’s the aesthetic. The black hoods, the fingerless gloves, yellow taxis, runes, monsters, swords, and night air–the uncanny way it’s all so familiar, so much like the urban fantasy I’ve poured my life and soul into for the last three years.
The point is, I was really, really excited for this book. Yes, even if it is girl-meets-boy YA. Two of my least favorite things.
The book was…okay.
Alright, it was a little annoying. And maybe I should have taken the hint from the shirtless dude on the cover that this was going to be one of those books. I was too certain it was going to be the next best thing since peaches. But the concept was good!
And maybe it was a mistake for me to read Harry Potter? Because now I can see the similarities everywhere (though to be fair, since my urban fantasy is remarkably similar to TMI, maybe it’s coincidence)?
To explain City of Bones badly–a trio of racist Slytherins and your friendly werewolf help Clary Fray, the Girl Who Lived, leave the Muggle–erm, Mundie–world and defeat He Who Is Named for a Holiday (except they don’t) and the vestiges of a group of friends called the Circle (definitely not Death Eaters) who are desperate to have the Cup of Helga Hufflepuff (because if Sauron and Feanor taught this generation anything, it’s to covet jewelry and when that fails, cutlery). I mean, snap your fingers and say You’re a Wizard, Clary! She’s even got Lily Potter’s red hair.
To explain it properly…
…Well, maybe it is a lot like Potter in some respects, if for a clearly American YA audience. It’s got that same combination of the familiar and the strange for us fantasy dwellers. Standard features and new styles.
The plot is simple. Shadowhunters kill monsters. What’s a Shadowhunter? Well, they might be people with the blood of angels, based on one of the most painstakingly debated, brief, and mysterious verses in the Old Testament about the sons of angels and daughters of men–but please don’t get me started on that or we’ll have to go over why writing is not theology and why theologians are terrible, terrible writers (just as a warning, I’m probably going to write a whole post on this sooner or later because religious appropriation in fantasy drives me bonkers). It’s handled well enough, for what it’s worth. As a possibility, more than anything else.
I’d heard rumor Clary was dumb and irritating. So I was determined to like her. And I did! A little. I like that she’s super short and spunky and has freckles and acts like an ordinary teenager.
I was a little surprised at first. The girl has zilch self-preservation. Witnesses a violent crime and barely shows fear. Maybe if you’re brave you’ll put your life on the line for someone you don’t know. But this was…almost illogical.
And I couldn’t help shaking my head at how much cheek she gave her mom in the opening. Maybe I’m overreacting, but if I’d ever given my mom that much disrespect and walked out, well, let’s just say I’d be lucky to have a home when I got back.
Still. She’s not dumb.
Then I got further into the book.
My final opinion? Clary is not of sub-par intelligence. She’s emotionally immature. Insensitive. Unobservant. Has a foul mouth (and is busily, if accidentally, teaching the homeschooled Shadowhunters how to swear). Sometimes annoying. But not stupid. I’ve met better protagonists, and I’ve met worse.
Then there are the other characters.
Alec, the selfish jerk. Isabelle, the flirt. Jace, the flirtatious, selfish jerk. And when I said they were racist, I wasn’t joking. It’s not prejudice as we know it, based on gender or race or ethnicity or culture or ideology or whatever. It’s Shadowhunters vs. Downworlders. Us vs. them, just with a different face.
I hated all three of these characters in a slightly different way.
I know, I know, you’re supposed to like Jace because he’s the cool one. Maybe that’s why I disliked him.
He talks too much. Like, seriously dude. If you’re that emotionally damaged, stop spilling your guts to everyone who didn’t ask. Whether or not we’re trying to give key exposition here.
But beyond that–girls, someone who has a traumatic past shouldn’t be your first choice as a romantic partner sheerly because you pity him. You can’t love him because of his issues because that isn’t who he is. Past does not define the future. You can love someone with emotional issues, absolutely. But you also need to be careful and make sure you know the real them before you wind up getting hurt yourself. People who have been abused react differently. That doesn’t make them automatically bad people. It just means you’re handling broken glass. It might be a mosaic one day, but it will still cut your hands if you don’t know where the sharp edges are.
Sorry. Toxic relationships in YA are a super pet peeve (am now taking recommendations for any YA books where the two main protagonists don’t end up as a couple. Because seriously. Bonus points if someone stays in a happy, healthy relationship from the beginning of the book until the end).
Long story short, I didn’t really understand why Clary liked Jace. Sure, he was nicer to her than the others, but he was still a jerk and said horribly mean things on purpose. It didn’t feel like a healthy relationship of any kind. And let’s not forget he’s an implied womanizer (cafe scene and smeared lipstick on the cheek, in case you forgot. Oh, and that line he says about girls, what was it? “Usually he wanted them, and then he wanted them to leave him alone.” Something like that). So any attraction between the two really meant–nothing. At least outwardly.
Then there’s Alec. Personally, I’m disappointed. I thought at first Alec was going to be the best character of them all–protecting the others, a little bit of a mother hen, but with the sort of camaraderie every book needs.
Instead, he turned out to be another two-dimensional love interest. No, he doesn’t do things because he cares about others. He protects people because he selfishly wants them for his own pleasure. Without the respect that you have to give individuals in real relationships to recognize their autonomy and personhood. Because of course we can’t have a character who does something just because it’s right and he doesn’t want anything in return. That’s not how the real world works, is it? Of course he has to be petty and selfish and every relationship has to be love or hate. He’s a jerk to Clary and she’s a jerk right back.
And while we’re on the subject of things that bug me? “Gay” is not a character arc. It’s a characteristic. Especially when the character has no (satisfying) emotional arc from beginning to end. And it’s really disgusting that Clare writes in that characteristic like every other modern YA novel to prove it’s diverse–and then promptly makes it just something to be whispered about during girl time gossip. That’s not respectful to anyone involved.
What was that phrase I used earlier? Emotionally immature.
It’s also kind of sexist and objectifying towards the male characters. Oh, there’s still pressure on the girl characters, too. And apparently Clare’s verdict on “Can guys and girls be friends?” is a resounding no, because there are zilch platonic relationships in the book. Anywhere.
Oh, and apparently everyone is okay with a teenager being flirted with by someone at least twice his age? Dude, witch, warlock, or whatever, that’s creepy.
Not to mention the fact that the teen’s response, rather than “Uh, he’s way too old for me,” or even a polite “I’m not interested,” is essentially “I’m racist, so that’s never going to happen.”
Now it’s beyond creepy.
Moving on from the creepy,
The things I liked about the book!
Luke was probably my favorite character. I would most likely read an entire book just of Luke. It’s compelling, it’s heartfelt, he struggles, and he rises above it all.
And the aesthetic is everything I could have hoped for. Weapons, runes, libraries–down to werewolves bringing you Chinese takeout. What is not to like?
And Simon. How happy am I that he manages to prove them all wrong, that ordinary people have a place in a magical world and their Shadowhunter racism is stupid?
Very, very happy. Honestly, I was worried. I thought Clary was going to dump him for her new friends and move on. Like MG protagonists having their parents die on page 4 without shedding a tear. What role could a “Mundie” possibly have?
Well, apparently a pretty big one. Because it doesn’t matter so much what as who you are. In any world. And that’s awesome. Anywhere you are. “It is our choices, Harry…” erm, never mind.
I could go on about imbalanced ratio of killing stuff to kissing and the ending that’s really not a satisfying ending, but I think you get the idea. I finished the book slightly disgusted with what might have been and hating YA every bit as much as usual.
Mae Whitman is lovely on the audiobook. I would be a serious ingrate if I didn’t mention that. Her voice is delightful, and she changes it just enough to fit each character. My faith in good audiobooks after the underwhelming performances of We Hunt the Flame is thankfully restored.
That being said, this rant is seriously long enough. So I’m going to save my thoughts on the 2013 film Shadowhunters: City of Bones for next time. Don’t worry. It gets better. I promise I’ve gotten most of my grumbling done now.
In the meantime, feel free to let me know what you think of the series. Is it worth it to keep reading? Think I’m being too harsh? Not harsh enough? Have no idea but want to say hi? Comment, my friends, comment below.