CITY OF BONES: A REVIEW IN THREE PARTS
In order to fully process the experience of reading the first book in Cassandra Clare’s ever-expanding Mortal Instruments series, I found it necessary to split my review into three sections. Please feel free to skip around from section to section if the whole review is too long for you, but bear in mind it makes the most sense as a whole review. I apologize in advance, because if you’re anything like me, thinking about this book and the shitstorm surrounding it will consume your mind for days on end. If you need evidence of that, please note that it took me nine. hours. to. write. this. post. (Leslie Knope GIFs included because why not?)
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1. The Book Itself
In the spirit of full disclosure, I devoured this book. I read it in about a day and a half, neglecting things I was supposed to be doing (important things) just so that I could see what crazy thing would happen next. Also, the story was jam packed full of tropes and story arcs that appeal to me. Why was it so full of those things? Well, more on that later, but to be starting out with, all that’s important was that it was ridiculousy readable.
From this point, be warned, SPOILERS AHOY:
If you’ve read much YA, you probably already know the basic plot of City of Bones. Clary Fray is our supposedly normal teen of choice, and she lives in a fictional version of New York City with her artist mother. Her father is dead (. . . OR IS HE?) and her best friend Simon is secretly but obviously in love with her. She’s pretty, but unaware of it. Her farts probably also smell like roses. Then one night when she witnesses a handsome blonde stranger seemingly murdering someone in a club, she finds herself falling into a hidden world where demons are real, and because she can see them (and the people who hunt them) that means she must be part of that world as well. The young man is named Jace, and he is a Shadowhunter/Nephilim, a half-angel being whose mission is to hunt down demons and keep Earth safe. And Clary is a Shadowhunter as well. Surprise!
But Clary’s not just ANY Shadowhunter. She is the daughter of the feared Valentine, a psychotic Master Race kind of Nephilim whose dream it was to cleanse the Shadowhunter world of Downworlders (anyone not Shadowhunter or human, i.e. vampires, werewolves, etc.) and to convert as many humans as possible into Shadowhunters, despite the fact that doing so would kill 80% of them. Clary’s mother took her into hiding when she was little but now she’s discovered her heritage, and her mother has been kidnapped by Valentine’s forces, who are trying to find the Mortal Cup, which Clary’s mother Jocelyn stole from Valentine the night she escaped. So Clary joins forces with the local Shadowhunter team (made of teenagers her age, natch) in order to track it down and rescue her mother. Of course she falls in love with Jace, and there’s a bloody love triangle (actually, a love pentagram). From there, other stuff happens, too, but the important takeaway here is that Simon loves Clary and Clary loves Jace and Jace loves Clary but Jace thinks Valentine is his father and Valentine IS Clary’s father, and also Isabelle hates everyone and Alec is in love with Jace because he’s gay, and there’s also a handsome bisexual Asian Warlock in there as well, and some vampires and werewolves and Simon turns into a rat. And that’s, like, 0.07% of the crazy that happens in this book. (Please do note, however, that no book will ever top the crazy that is Breaking Dawn.)
So what did I think of it? Well, like I said, it’s readable. If you read it really fast with your brain on autopilot, you might even be fooled into thinking Clare has a way with words (and characters). But upon closer inspection, most of Clare’s turns of phrase don’t actually make any sense. For example, after the scene where Clary and Jace rescue Simon the rat from the vampire nest and she’s taken a hefty fall, Clary thinks,
“Is that blood? She opened her eyes hazily. Her face felt like one big bruise, her arms, aching and stinging, like raw meat.”
Read it fast, that imagery is kind of striking. And I kind of get it . . . it’s like Clary’s arm muscles have been pulverized by a meat grinder or something, but stop and think about it for a second, and it makes no sense. Clary’s arms cannot possibly (even metaphorically) ache like raw meat because raw meat is not attached to a living animal. Raw meat cannot sting. Raw meat can be beaten and flattened and manipulated, and maybe she could have gotten it to work with a little thought and editing . . . but as is, it just sounds dumb. There are a lot of sentences like this one in the book, although this was one of the most egregious.
As for the characters? Again, on closer inspection, the only good character is Jace (and by ‘good,’ I mean is three dimensional, with a plausible backstory, complex emotions — albeit sometimes douchey ones — and conflicting motives.) He also gets all the good lines. Clary is a bit of an empty shell, an author conduit, a reader stand-in (I’m not going to use the term Mary Sue here, because I think it’s way overused, and every other idiot out there is constantly pointing fingers and shouting MARY SUE MARY SUE and it is incredibly tiresome). She certainly does things throughout the book, and has emotions, but only vague ones. I would be hard-pressed to describe her in any way other than: draws things, loves her mother, is attracted to Jace. I don’t know what motivates her, what’s she’s thinking, what her inner conflicts are. Nothing. The other characters fare little better (although Clare does get some mileage out of in-the-closet Alec being in love with Jace).
“Can I help you with something?” Clary turned instant traitor against her gender. “Those girls on the other side of the car are staring at you.”
Jace assumed an air of mellow gratification. “Of course they are,” he said, “I am stunningly attractive.”
“Investigation?” Isabelle laughed. “Now we’re detectives? Maybe we should all have code names.”
“Good idea,” said Jace. “I shall be Baron Hotschaft Von Hugenstein.”
Except I like Jace differently than I’m supposed to, I think. I get the feeling I’m supposed to think he’s smoldering and sexy and tragic and emotionally damaged and that’s SO HOT OMG, but really I just feel affection for him because he’s a bit of a smart ass, and doesn’t seem to care what anyone thinks about him. He’s also kind of an idiot, which I find endearing. He’s also condescending, petty, and territorial, but I think we’re supposed to think those are good things to be, sexy things (fuck you, Edward Cullen). And I have to admit, I don’t get the attraction here. I don’t want to sex him. At all. I just kind of want to be his mother and slap him on the face. The other main huge thing I don’t get? Incest. Now, I spoiled the fuck out of myself so I know Clary and Jace aren’t actually brother and sister, even though I’m not sure of the details, but still. The way it’s written, we’re CLEARLY meant to root for these two crazy kids, to be empathetic to their sexual desires, and (unlike in the movie) we’re not left with any wiggle room. If I hadn’t spoiled myself, I would think this was totally a Luke/Leia situation, except a majorly fucked up one where instead of falling in love with Han Solo, Leia still has the hots for Luke in secret. I also get the distinct feeling that Clare thinks brothers and sisters pining after one another isn’t just tragic, but sexy. (More on this later.)
But problematic writing and characters aren’t the main issue I had with the book. No, the main problem I had with this book is that everything in this book I’ve read somewhere else. Now, I’m all for generous reading. I think if you’re looking for faults, you’ll find them, but even I have a line. It would be generous to call this book a pastiche, but this is no pastiche. What this reads like is more like Ms. Clare sat down one day with her favorite stories and cherry-picked elements out of each one, changing the details just enough to avoid sticky situations. And I’m serious when I say I sat down for a good half hour trying to find a plot element that Clare hadn’t just up and lifted from another story, and the only one I could think of was the whole Alec/Jace/Magnus triangle (and I sincerely hope that wasn’t lifted from somewhere I just haven’t heard of).
The short list? Valentine is clearly a Voldemort analogue with some Hitler thrown in for good measure, and I already mentioned the Luke/Leia thing (which would throw a third V in there as well: Vader). The vampires vs werewolves thing could be straight from Twilight. The ordinary girl learns about secret world trope could be from any number of other stories. The steles are wand stand-ins. Luke is the most blatant Remus Lupin rip-off I’ve ever heard of. (All of the characters have Harry Potter counterparts, actually, but more on that in section 2.) The whole demon hunting thing (including Clare’s very own Scooby Gang) is very Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I could keep going, but this review would be even longer than it already is.
I know what you’re going to say — all writers steal from other writers, we can’t help it! We’re inspired! There are no original ideas! Except no, I call bullshit on that. When I say ‘original’, I don’t mean ‘this has never been done or thought of before,’ I mean, it literally originated in some form from your brain. It’s one thing to be inspired by another author’s work, or to do your own take on a trope, but quite another when almost every element of your story reads like it has been lifted from somewhere else, rather than from your own brain. One instance in a book, maybe two, sure. That’s just a case of an author being influenced by something, dwelling on it for a while, and then spitting it back out in another form, or in some other variation, but that’s not what this book felt like to me. This isn’t variations on a theme. This is a collage made from other people’s pictures. Sure it’s original, in the sense that you tracked down the individual pieces and arranged them in your preferred order to create what is technically something that has never existed before, but the pieces remain visibly themselves, if you look hard enough. You can see where they fit together, where they came from. If I were to judge solely from this book, I would say that Clare has a hard time generating story from the ground up, so she resorts to this collage writing, mixing and matching, elaborating and changing here and there. And sure, it’s not illegal, but it makes me feel squicky just the same. Others might read this differently, and power to them, but given the evidence below, I tend to think my opinion here is not out of line.
2. Plagiarism and Pulled to Publish
I’m not going to write too many words of my own on this (ironically enough) because it has been covered ad nauseum on the internet. Instead, I’m going to give a brief overview of several incidents that altered my perception of this book. I tried to keep an open mind in my research here, because I know that stuff (true or not) can spread around the internet faster and more viciously than an STD in a whorehouse, but certain facts seem to be unavoidable.
Cassandra Clare (nee Cassandra Claire, both pennames) got her start in writing fanfiction for The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter fandoms. She was what they call a Big Name Fan (one that had fans of her own). Her most famous fanfic was the Draco Trilogy, a series of three novel length fics written about Harry and Draco Malfoy (featuring Hermione and Ginny as well). The Draco Trilogy has since been removed forcefully from the internet, but its legacy remains (you can also track down copies if you’re really persistent, but Ms. Clare really doesn’t seem to want you to). Clare was kicked off of Fanfiction.net when accusations of plagiarism hit her. She had been nicking lines and whole paragraphs from TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Red Dwarf and from other books and movies, most prominently from Pamela Dean’s The Secret Country and The Hidden Land. She claimed later that it was a game for her fans, who were supposed to find the quotes ‘hidden’ in her stories. But the fact remains that within the stories themselves, people who weren’t familiar with her sources could easily take those words as Ms. Clare’s own. That is plagiarism. So she brought her fanfiction to another site and kept writing.
You can read a brief summary of the whole debacle here if you’re curious, and if you’re REALLY curious, you can read about it in astonishing detail here. There have also been accusations about Clare bullying people, trying to get them kicked out of college, and setting her lawyers on them. But again, I’m taking these rumors with a grain of salt, because: the Internet.
Now, fanfiction is tricky legally anyway without bringing plagiarism into it. I’m personally all for it. I think it’s great. I tend to stay away from fanfic about books, myself, but damn if I’m not all up in it for TV shows. But I am absolutely 100% against pulling fanfiction to publish, which is what Cassandra Clare essentially did with the Draco Trilogy, although to a much lesser extent than E.L. James did with 50 Shades of Grey or Alice Clayton did with Wallbanger. I managed to track down a copy of The Draco Trilogy, and read the first part, Draco Dormiens. There isn’t any Shadowhunter stuff in it, but the characters are all essentially translated directly from that story into City of Bones, and she copies lines exactly from one to the other as well. Example (quote copied from this review, whose reviewer is SO much more upset about CC than I am, it’s amusing):
From Draco Veritas (Fan Fiction):
“The falcon did not like Draco, and Draco didn’t like it either. Its sharp beak made him nervous, and its bright eyes always seemed to be watching him. It would slash at him with beak and talons when he came near: for weeks, his wrists and hands were always bleeding. He did not know it, but his father had selected a falcon that had lived in the wild for over a year, and thus was nearly impossible to tame. But Draco tried, because his father had told him to make the falcon obedient, and he wanted to please his father.”
“… Harry realizes that what Draco has been saying all this time into his neck is really the simplest litany of all: his name, just his name.”
From City of Bones:
“When the boy was six years old, his father gave him a falcon to train. The falcon didn’t like the boy, and the boy didn’t like it, either. Its sharp beak made him nervous, and its bright eyes always seemed to be watching him. It would slash at him with beak and talons when he came near: for weeks, his wrists and hands were always bleeding.”
“He smelled of salt and blood, and only when his mouth came close to her ear did she understand what he was saying, what he had been whispering before, and it was the simplest litany of all: her name, just her name.”
The parallels between City of Bones and Harry Potter become more obvious when you realize all the COB characters are just different versions of the fanon (fan created) Harry Potter characters. Jace is Draco. Clary is Ginny. Luke is Lupin. Valentine is Voldemort. Simon is a hybrid of Clare’s Harry and Ron. Etc.
Like I said above, this may not be legally wrong, but it feels wrong to me. Sure COB may not be completely recognizable as having been based off of Harry Potter, but it was. Clare took a story she wrote for fun, which was only legal because she wasn’t making money off of it, changed all the names, added in some other stuff, and then published it. And made lots of money off of it. (And according to some, continued to publish the same stories over and over again in different forms, which is somehow even worse . . . but I’ll have to reserve judgment on that as I’ve only read City of Bones, and while I’m going to finish out the original trilogy, I doubt I’ll be reading past that.)
Authors I respect have publicly stuck up for CC, which is upsetting but understandable: John Green, Sarah Rees Brennan, and Holly Black (who helped Clare get The Mortal Instruments published), to name a few. As wary as I am about CC now, they’re of course going to be on her side because they’re authors, because the allegations are so flimsy in parts, because the issues I have with her aren’t legal ones, and most of all, because if one of them was ever accused wrongly of something as serious as plagiarism they would want someone to stick up for them, too. (The term “generous reading” that I used above is one originating — as far as I know — with John Green, incidentally.)
I’m not going to argue about whether or not it’s ethically and morally wrong, as those are subjective judgments, but you will never convince me that pulled to publish fanfiction isn’t sleazy and lazy behavior, not to mention completely unprofessional and disrespectful of other authors (particularly ones who got their starts writing fanfic). (More on Pulled to Publish fanfiction (or P2P) here.)
As Goodreads user Alicia stated in a comment thread for a review of Wallbanger:
“. . . it’s not about an aversion to fan fiction. I, for instance, have no problems with fan fiction. I love that some big authors started out writing fanfic. But when someone is done playing with someone else’s characters, in their fandom sandbox, they’re supposed to write something original that belongs to them. Not copy off someone’s work, using someone else’s fans to gain a following, and using free fandom labor.”
Couldn’t have said it better, dude. (For more along this line, she elaborates on those same thoughts here.)
3. Yick, just YICK.
Any time an author writes a book, no matter the circumstances or the talent of said author, they put pieces of themselves inside their work. Things they like, things they obsess over, things that turn them on, etc. One time Cassandra Clare wrote a fanfic and the romantic pair was Ron and Ginny (for those of you who don’t know Harry Potter, Ron and Ginny are BROTHER AND SISTER). This story, not coincidentally at all, was also titled “The Mortal Instruments.”
. . . er.
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FINAL VERDICT: Three stars for the story and the writing (I did, after all, gain some enjoyment out of it). One star because that enjoyment was not fairly earned by the author.