Book Review: City of Bones
Part of me really, really wanted to do Twilight next, but there are already a ton of chapter-by-chapter Twilight reviews out there, so instead we’re doing the Mortal Instruments trilogy. I might come back to the Twilight Saga at some point, but I’ll most likely be doing oneshot reviews instead of chapter-by-chapter ones.
I received the first two books in this trilogy for Christmas a few years back. I think a friend who liked them gave them to me. I know for sure that I read the first one, and I probably read the second, but the entirety of the plot has gone out of my head since. I’ll probably have a lot of “oh, yeah, I remember this!” moments as I reread the book, but going in I basically recall nothing, so for all intents and purposes this might as well be my first read-through.
The author, Cassandra Clare (real name Judith Rumelt), was a big name in the Harry Potter fandom a while back. She wrote The Draco Trilogy, a series of three novel-length fanfics about Draco Malfoy from Harry Potter. If any of you are familiar with the term “Draco in leather pants,” used to refer to an unpleasant or villainous canon character getting a more sympathetic and sexualized fanon makeover, her fanfics are where the term originated. (There’s a famous scene in one of them in which Draco wears very tight leather pants.) There were several fandom controversies and a lot of drama surrounding these fics. As I understand it:
- The fics were ostensibly about a Draco/Hermione/Harry love triangle, but there was also a lot of Draco/Harry subtext. Might not seem like a big deal, but back in the day you either liked het pairings or you liked slash (gay pairings), and the Draco Trilogy’s predominately het-fan audience wasn’t always comfortable with the amount of gay subtext in the story.
- The author plagiarized a fairly long section of text from an out-of-print novel; when this was pointed out by a reader, the fics were removed from Fanfiction.net. As you can imagine, this caused a huge backlash from the trilogy’s many fans, who defended Cassandra’s plagiarism as an “homage” to the original work. (She was well-known for referencing other works in her fics; characters were often quoting Buffy the Vampire Slayer at length, for example, and she rarely cited her sources. It’s not uncommon for fan works to contain a fair number of references and shout-outs, but this author really used a ton of them, to the point where a large portion of her work was not original content.)
- Just to really drive home the above — Cassandra Clare was definitively proven to have lifted an entire scene from a book by another author, and much of the witty dialogue her fics were praised for was in fact taken directly from other works. The inconsistent nature of her prose, furthermore, suggests that she may have plagiarized far more than just that. Keep in mind, too, that she wrote these fics as an adult.
After first hearing of this drama, some time ago now, I got interested in rereading the Mortal Instruments series, but until now I haven’t gotten around to it. I haven’t heard anyone claim that the author plagiarized anyone’s work in her published novels, so maybe she learned her lesson; still, I’m having a hard time believing that someone who made a name for herself borrowing work from other authors has much chops as a writer.
(Bit off-topic, but I’ve just realized that she lives about 15-20 minutes away from my college. As I type this, there is a bus pulling up outside. If I were to get on this bus, it would take me to the town where she lives. Small world.)
Before beginning the review proper, one last note. I’m reading a hard copy of the book, rather than a PDF like I did for Fifty Shades. For this reason, I won’t be doing “alerts” at the end of these reviews. It was easy to do with Fifty Shades because I could just copy and paste quotes and do searches for phrases like “inner goddess” and “oh my” that the author used frequently. I’m still going to be doing a “thoughts so far” section at the end of each review.
City of Bones: Chapter One – Pandemonium
We open with our main character, fifteen-year old Clary Fray, and her best friend, Simon, waiting in line to get into an all-ages club called the Pandemonium Club. The line is about fifty teenagers long, which is pretty typical for this club, especially on Sundays, and—
—no, stop, I call bullshit already. Why the fuck would there be so many teens going out clubbing on a Sunday night? Maybe as a one-off thing, okay, but on a regular basis? Don’t they have school in the morning? Even if it’s summer, don’t they have curfews? Why is this seen as a typical event when it is so obviously weird and wrong? Why did the author decide that it made sense to declare Sunday the busiest night of the week, instead of, say, Friday or Saturday?
Anyway. At the front of the line, the bouncer is telling some kid that he can’t bring a fake weapon into the club. The fake weapon, described as looking like a pointed wooden beam (we’re not told the size), is part of the boy’s vampire hunter costume. He’s allowed in after demonstrating that his weapon is made of foam rubber.
…this strikes me as a little weird, too. If people regularly attend this club in costume (which would seem to be the case), then there are probably rules in place about fake weapons. The kid shouldn’t have had to argue with the bouncer about it; either the thing passes inspection, or it doesn’t. On top of that, we still don’t know how big it is, but “wooden beam” makes it sound pretty damn large, and I guarantee you it would be possible to hurt someone with a large beam, foam rubber or no foam rubber.
We’re only on page 2 but I’m still not done nitpicking. The boy is described as looking fairly normal for this club; his hair is dyed electric blue, but that’s not a standout compared to what other club-goers sometimes sport (we’re told it’s not uncommon for people to show up with facial piercings and “elaborate facial tattoos”, the latter of which I can only assume are fake considering that the club-goers are underage). There is something weird about this boy’s looks, though. At one point Clary gets a look at his eyes, which are “way too bright a green … the color of antifreeze, spring grass.”
I had to look up what color antifreeze is. It’s a very bright, vivid, artificial green. Spring grass is a color that I’m of course familiar with; also a very bright, vivid green, but a totally different shade and not artificial-looking at all. This is a terrible simile. Both colors are clearly unnatural eye colors for a human, yes, but they’re two distinct colors, with one suggesting harsh, artificial chemicals and one suggesting nature. I have no idea what this detail is supposed to say about this kid now — he’s probably a supernatural being, but is he something malevolent and poisonous or is he some kind of nature spirit? And, of course, I have no fucking clue what color his eyes are supposed to be now, other than just “bright green,” which could have been said on its own without the need for any bad similes.
Clary observes him as he enters the club, thinking that she likes the way he moves and that her mother would have described him with the word “insouciant.” I don’t know how to feel about that word being invoked. Sure, it describes the character — “insouciant” means “showing a casual lack of concern” — and, while it might seem out-of-place in the average fifteen-year-old’s vocabulary, it is stated that that’s the word her mother would have used and not one she’d have thought to describe him with herself. It’s still clunky. It stands out as the author trying to impress the readers with her vocabulary.
We then shift perspective to the boy, now inside the club, which is described as being filled with “dry-ice smoke.” I looked this up to check if it was correct — I mean, sure, you could fill a club with dry ice, but dry ice vapor settles low to the ground and dissipates as it rises, which doesn’t fit the description in the book — and apparently, yes, you can use dry ice in a fog machine, but you can also use mineral oil, glycol, or glycerine solutions, and those solutions would produce actual fog instead of a cloud of vapor at foot level. Also, probably a lot cheaper than dry ice. So the author didn’t do her five seconds of Wikipedia research.
Unsurprisingly, the boy is some kind of supernatural being, and the weapon he got into the club is in fact a real weapon that he disguised to look like a fake one using magic. He also hypnotized the bouncer into letting him in. Apparently this guy just gets off on tricking humans — he calls them “mundies” — in the most blatant way he can. Okay.
Also, apparently he can sense energy given off by humans and appears to get sort of high off it. Is he some sort of energy vampire? I have no idea. I’m also finding it rather hard to care.
Demon-boy is apparently from a “dead world” with a dying sun. That’s all we’re told so far. Okay.
A girl in a white dress catches his eye. She’s gorgeous, with long dark hair and dark eyes. She’s wearing a large red pendant, which demon-boy recognizes as being “real — real and precious.” Real what? Are we just talking fancy expensive jewelry, or magical artifacts? I have no clue.
Her dress is rather terribly described. Aside from three details about how it actually looks — white, floor-length, lacy sleeves — we’re just told that it’s “the kind women used to wear when this world was younger.” How much younger? A hundred years? Two hundred? Five?
The girl makes eyes at him, and he follows her, already thinking ahead to the kill. Except it’s rather obvious to the reader that she’s tricking him. Is he a bit dim? Does he just underestimate humans? Has he never met one that knew what he was?
She lures him into a storage room with the promise of sex. No, really. She hikes up her skirt to show off her thigh-high boots in a gesture that’s pretty obviously sexual.
Great. Girls fighting boys with sex appeal. I haven’t seen that trope five hundred times before.
Back to Clary. She and Simon are dancing, very awkwardly. It’s quite obvious that Simon has a crush on Clary; she either doesn’t know, or doesn’t reciprocate. He’s only there, the narration (third-person limited, incidentally) states, because Clary likes going to the club. Clary, for her part, likes the atmosphere of the place but is too shy to talk to anyone there.
Simon, incidentally, is described as dark-haired and with glasses; sort of a nerdy chess-club type. Still no description of Clary. Are we going to wait until she looks in a mirror?
The whole time, Clary’s watching blue-haired demon-boy. She think that there’s “something about the way he [moves] that [reminds] her of something,” which… gee, thanks, narration, that was some real helpful information there. She has a bit of a crush on this boy and wonders if she should go up to him and introduce herself, maybe offer to show him around since he looks a bit lost.
At that point, the boy’s attention turns to the girl in the white dress, and Clary watches as she beckons him over to the storage room. She notices that there are two tall boys, dressed in black, following demon-boy. Actually, take a look at this passage:
She couldn’t have said how she knew that they were following the other boy, but she did. She could see it in the way they paced him, their careful watchfulness, the slinking grace of their movements.
You guys all see what’s wrong here, right? In the first sentence the narration tells us she isn’t sure what’s tipped her off to the fact that these two boys are following demon-boy. In the second sentence the narration explains exactly why she can tell they’re following him.
Man, whoever edited this was slacking off.
Simon is talking to Clary this whole time and saying increasingly ridiculous things because she’s not paying him any attention; she’s still fixated on the two boys. One of them, a blond, pulls a knife as they approach the storage room door.
Clary yells to get Simon’s attention, but it takes her most of a page to manage to tell him that the blond boy near the storage room door is carrying a knife. Once she finally manages to convey this information, Simon leaves to get security and Clary, for some ill-advised and poorly defined reason, decides to go after the knife-wielding boy herself.
We cut back to demon-boy. He asks white-dress-girl what her name is. She says it’s Isabelle. They have some flirty dialogue. As he approaches her, he notices what he takes for a bracelet around her wrist; getting closer, he suddenly notices that it’s not a bracelet, but a design inked into her skin. Before he has time to react to this (I’m guessing it’s magical runes or something?), she slaps him, hard, then pulls out a golden whip (what?) and wraps it around his ankles, tripping him. The two boys in black haul him to his feet and bind him to a pillar. Seeing the symbols on the boys’ skin, demon-boy calls them “Shadowhunters.” Okay. And that makes him a Shadow?
Back to Clary. She opens the door to the storage room, which is apparently quite large as she isn’t able to immediately spot the group. Oh, except then suddenly they’re right there, and I guess she’s not supposed to see them because magic. Or something.
Listening to them talk, Clary assumes there’s some sort of “gang war” thing going on, until blond boy starts going on about demons and she instead assumes they’re crazy.
More clunky prose. There’s a passage where blond boy, whose name is Jace, launches into an explanation of what “demon” means for no good reason — except lazy exposition, of course! A bit later, this sentence happens:
Jace raised his head and smiled. There was something fierce about the gesture, something that reminded Clary of documentaries she’d watched about lions on the Discovery Channel, the way the big cats would raise their heads and sniff the air for prey.
Man, this author really loves the word “something.” Also, the way this is phrased implies that Jace reminds Clary of documentaries, not of lions. If it were turned around — something like “…that reminded Clary of lions she’d seen in nature documentaries…” — then it’d actually make sense. This is why it is important to have a good editor, or at the very least a competent one.
Demon-boy tries to worm out of his predicament by offering the group information on someone called Valentine, but they think he’s lying and decide to just kill him. Right as Jace is going in for the kill, Clary yells “Stop!” and he drops the knife, startled.
There’s a lot of unimportant dialogue — mostly Jace rambling and calling Clary a “little girl” and generally acting like a superior prick. We learn that the other boy’s name is Alec, and that Isabelle is his sister. While the humans are distracted, demon-boy gets free and leaps at Jace, pinning him down. They have a brief, uninteresting fight scene before Jace pulls out another knife and stabs the demon in the chest. He bleeds black blood, hisses something ominous about “the Forsaken,” then dies and vanishes. Uh, okay?
The three Shadowhunters argue over what to do with Clary. Jace says let her go. Alec says take her to the Institute, as someone named Hodge would like to talk to her. Isabelle says no way they’re taking a mundie to the Institute. Jace asks Clary if she’s had any dealings with the supernatural before, and as she’s telling him that she has no idea what he’s talking about Simon shows up with the bouncer.
It’s immediately apparent that Simon and the bouncer can’t see the Shadowhunters; they think Clary is alone in the room. Simon asks her if she’s okay and what happened to the guys with knives, and Clary says she must have been mistaken when she thought she saw them enter the storage room.
Cut to later. The two are trying to hail a cab. We’re finally given some sense of location; they’re on Orchard Street, in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Simon tells Clary he doesn’t buy her story about the guys with knives just vanishing, because she looked pretty spooked when he saw her in the storage room. Clary sticks to her story and tells him it was just a mistake.
The more I think about it, though, the more that scene seemed to wrap up way too conveniently. The sudden scene cut didn’t help, of course, but more than that; why didn’t the bouncer at least investigate? We were told earlier that the storage room is fairly large. There are places where the guys could have hidden. Especially given that Clary was visibly scared/nervous, wouldn’t the bouncer at least consider the possibility that she knew perfectly well where the guys with knives were, and was withholding that information in fear of her life?
Here’s another sentence where the author overuses “something,” just to prove to you that she does it a lot:
And there was something about what had happened — something about the black blood bubbling up around Jace’s knife, something about his voice when he’d said Have you talked with the Night Children? that she wanted to keep to herself.
Finally, a cab stops for them — incidentally, earlier Clary wonders aloud where everyone is going at midnight on a Sunday, which reminded me again that apparently in the world of this book it’s perfectly normal and expected for literally hordes of teenagers to go out clubbing at midnight on a Sunday, and that’s still really fucking weird — and they get in. Simon tells the cabbie to take them to Brooklyn. Where in Brooklyn? I have no idea, it’s not said. Okay.
The chapter ends. Well then.
Thoughts So Far:
About the only positive thing I can say is that the prose is better than that of Fifty Shades, though that’s really not much of a compliment. Fifty Shades was incredibly amateurishly written; this, at least, looks at first glance like published-novel prose, though it’s definitely not good published-novel prose. I’ve pulled out some of the more obvious mistakes for you to look at (keep in mind that this is only the first 17 pages of a 485-page book), but on a sentence-by-sentence level the prose is never good, just passable.
The fantasy setting we’ve been given here is fairly standard; supernatural beings, people who fight supernatural beings, protagonist is probably super-important to both sides for reasons she doesn’t understand yet. Of course, Clary/Jace is going to be a thing, but the story actually isn’t hitting us over the head with it yet and for that I am grateful. I do like the detail about the magic runes on their bodies which are a giveaway to the demons they fight — hence why Isabelle had to wear a long-sleeved, floor-length dress — but I’m not exactly sure where we’re going with that yet.
I really don’t know what to think of our characters, though, because we really don’t know much about them at all. Look, here’s a quick run-down of everything we know about our cast:
- Fifteen years old
- Best friend named Simon
- Likes boys (whoa, what a shocker)
- Can’t dance
- Likes going to the club because it’s more exciting than her everyday life
- Likes to draw
- Has some sort of special ability to see Shadowhunters
- Lives in Brooklyn
Simon (no last name given)
- Has a crush on Clary
- Has brown hair
- Wears glasses
- Does not like clubs
- Also can’t dance
- Hates trance music
- Lives in Brooklyn
Isabelle (no last name given)
- Tall, long dark hair, very pretty
- Has some sort of special necklace thing
- Can fight demons using a possibly magical whip
- Brother named Alec
Jace (no last name given)
- Bit of an asshole
- Reminds Clary of a lion
Alec (no last name given)
- Taller than Jace
- Isabelle’s brother
And here’s what we know about the redshirt demon who was killed on page 14:
- Wears a red zip-up jacket
- Bright blue hair
- Bright green eyes
- Disguised himself as a vampire hunter
- Used magic to fool the bouncer into letting him into the club with his weapon
- Cute, according to Clary
- Likes fooling “mundies” in the most obvious way he can
- Likes being around human energy
- From a “dead world” with a burnt-out sun
- Experienced with hunting and killing human prey
- Weakness to whatever metal Isabelle’s whip is made of
- Might have knowledge about someone named Valentine
- Has claws sharp enough to draw blood
- Bleeds black
Doesn’t this seem disproportionate? We got a ton of info, relatively speaking, on a character who didn’t even make it 20 pages into the novel. We got very little information on our protagonist, her closest friend, or the three Shadowhunters they meet later on, at least one of whom is going to be a very important character. I mean, I was more invested in the demon than I was in Clary, but he’s dead and will almost certainly never reappear, whereas we’re stuck with Clary for the next 450+ pages, and for the next two books after that.
Of course, that gives us a ton of time to further develop our main cast, but when you see how quickly the author was able to give us a basic character sketch of the demon, it’s absurd that she didn’t bother to do the same for her other characters. Sure, demon-boy wasn’t a very fleshed-out character, but he was certainly fleshed-out enough for one who only lived for a handful of pages — hell, we even got a few pages from his POV. If that’s the amount of characterization we’re going to be giving characters who are essentially redshirts, then we need to step it way up for the actual protagonists. (And if we’re going to give that much characterization to redshirts, we ought to be giving more to other minor characters; the bouncer, for instance.)
We’ll see how it goes. First chapters can be awkward; sometimes the story gets into more of a rhythm once you’re a bit into it. Then again, an awkward first chapter is a sign of a bad editor, and what with some of the obvious mistakes in this chapter (see: all the “somethings”) I’m already a little suspicious of this book’s editing.
Again, we’ll see how it goes, but my hopes aren’t high at this point. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that someone who relied on plagiarism when writing fanfiction can’t actually write worth a damn.