What drew me to Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones – the first in the ‘Mortal Instruments’ series – was the potential of ‘urban fantasy’. There are certain aesthetic things I like about the gothic (and creatures of the dark/night), and there are certain aspects of the gritty and the urban that I also like. The steampunk genre generally does this well as it pretends that technological advancement never occurred (think Lemony Snicket or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen).
What Clare has done is transport certain interiors (and characters) reminiscent of Hogwarts (or all the source material that JK Rowling uses) and plonk them in modern New York, with many surrounding characters sounding like they’re from Hackers or a 90s rave party. Unfortunately, she doesn’t bother to explain just why the Shadowhunters haven’t heard of things like ebay and The Doors. To briefly explain, Shadowhunters hunt and kill demons and ‘gatekeep’ in a murky divide between mundanes (humans), and the downworlders (magic/mythical-type folk). The disgustingly good-looking teen Shadowhunter, Jace, does have a mobile phone, yet has never heard of the aforementioned things.
I had to get that qualm off my chest first and foremost, because it created a frustration which stayed with me throughout the novel. Obviously the gothic, the old-fashioned weapons, libraries, archetypal characters (cat with personality, thin villain, semi-orphaned main character who is being awakened to world behind world) appeal to the author and will appeal to a lot of her audience. But JK Rowling has already done it in a more intelligent and captivating series.
What is different here, is that the characters are older and more sexually aware, and of course the interrelations between love interests, friends, jealousies, confusions and sexualities (with quite a few unexpected twists and turns) help to keep you turning the pages. I also found the vampires’ flying motorbikes that run on demon fuel undeniably cool.
There was one other thing that bugged me. Clare’s attempt at dramatic irony just didn’t work in terms of the main character. She came out looking dumb, rather than in denial, in reference to one thing that was completely obvious to the reader from the start. Other than that, the main character Clary is the plain, likeable, and growing type (who suddenly looks gorgeous when she puts boots and a bit of make-up on).
But seriously, besides these factors, Clare is an okay writer and skilled at swinging the plot along. If I had read this when I was about 13 or 14 I think I would have been quite compelled, and of course not so inclined to notice how much is ‘borrowed’ from other literature (and yes, I know Rowling borrows too, but in a more broad, post-modern referential way). There are enough fun elements, and there is enough pace and intrigue in the story to keep you reading. Clare does try a little too hard to find a different description for blood each time though! I have the second book tentatively in my pile as the plot is left open after a few shocks at the ending (which I didn’t see coming), so we’ll see if the world draws me back in. Maybe she’ll explain the technology discrepancy in the second one…