Book Review: City of Bones (part 2)

I could have sworn I published this review, but then I realized I hadn’t, despite having written it a while ago. Oops.

Chapter 1

City of Bones: Chapter Two – Secrets and Lies

The chapter opens with Clary sketching in her bedroom. Now, at first glance this is cool and I’m glad, because previous experience with the “supernatural romance” subgenre of YA lit has taught me that young female protagonists are often not given any talents or hobbies outside of what’s needed to advance the plot, and even then it’s often the job of Superhuman Love Interest Boy to be actually good at things. Other times the protagonist is given a skill that’s never demonstrated or made plot-important. So, hey, nice to see Clary having a hobby outside of killing demons or mooning after Jace or whatever.

On the other hand, the actual sketching scene is weird. Almost all the adjectives in the description of her sketch are about color, but she’s not coloring the drawing, she’s doing the initial sketch. Which is most likely in lead pencil. So no colors.

She’s also drawing a blond prince. Probably supposed to be Jace.

By the second paragraph of the chapter, Clary has given up on the drawing; the prince’s arm isn’t coming out right. She crumples up the sketch and angsts about how she wishes she could be as talented as her mother, Jocelyn Fray, who is apparently a professional artist. According to Clary:

Everything Jocelyn Fray drew, painted, or sketched was beautiful, and seemingly effortless.

Now, my dad’s an artist — he writes and illustrates children’s books, actually. I know what it’s like to grow up as an artistic person with an artistic parent. And, yeah, especially when I was younger, all my dad’s work seemed amazing and I wondered how he was able to so quickly turn out sketches much better than the ones I’d labor over for hours. But, on the other hand, even though everything my dad draws is obviously more skilled than my stuff — he’s got decades more experience than I do, after all — I never had an impression of him as a perfect artist, because every single artist goes through what Clary is going through right now, where nothing she draws seems to be coming out right. I’ve seen my dad go through many, many drafts of the same picture trying to get one that looks how he wants it to. Clary, realistically, should have seen her mom do the same thing. If she hasn’t, either:

  1. Clary’s mom is a magical fairy who is magically able to always create perfect works of art on the first try; or
  2. Clary’s mom is not allowing Clary to observe her entire artistic process, which seems pretty shitty given Clary’s interest in art.

Of course, there’s always option c, which is “the author didn’t really put any thought into this.”

The phone rings. It’s Simon. We learn during the course of their conversation that it is one day after the incident at Pandemonium in the previous chapter. Clary tells him she got in trouble for getting home late that night. Simon protests and says that they only got home late because of the traffic, to which Clary replies:

“Yeah, well, she doesn’t see it that way. I disappointed her, I let her down, I made her worry, blah blah blah, I am the bane of her existence,” Clary said, mimicking her mother’s precise phrasing with only a slight twinge of guilt.

Does… does the author not realize how harsh that sounds? Being called a disappointment because you got home a bit late is bad enough, but having your mother call you the bane of her existence for such a mild offense as this (or for most offenses, really)… that’s quite harsh.

Furthermore, the way Clary offhandedly says this suggests that she’s used to having her mother talk to her like this.

As is revealed through Clary and Simon’s phone conversation, Simon is in a band with his friends Eric, Matt, and Kirk. Of these three, Eric is also a poet, and he’s doing a reading that night in a nearby coffee shop. Simon invites Clary along, but Clary isn’t sure if her mom is going to officially ground her or not.

Clary hangs up the phone and, for no real reason, we get a bunch of description of the living room. It’s not bad description, and it does serve to illustrate further that Clary’s mom is an artist — there are handmade pillows in the room, and multiple paintings by her mother hanging on the walls — but it feels randomly inserted.

From there we go into some backstory on Clary’s father, who was a soldier who died in a car crash before Clary was born. (Given the author’s previous involvement in HP fandom, and the fact that Harry was told as a kid that his parents died in a car crash, I get the feeling that Clary’s dad did not, in fact, die in an automobile accident.) Clary’s last name is her mother’s maiden name, which her mother went back to using after the death of Clary’s father.

We get some more info dump on how there’s a box with some of Clary’s dad’s old things next to Clary’s mom’s bed. The most relevant piece of information here seems to be that there’s a lock of blond hair in the box, which Clary’s mom sometimes takes out to hold.

Incidentally, Clary’s father was named Jonathan Clark, so we now have full names for both her parents. Cool.

Clary hears someone at the door and is snapped out of her “reverie,” which reminds me that we’re supposed to believe that this whole exposition fest we just sat through was Clary’s internal thought process. Which, y’know, makes no sense. But okay.

The someone at the door is a fellow called Luke, who is a family friend. Clary thinks of him as being an uncle, though he’s no actual relation. Luke is carrying cardboard boxes, which he evasively says are for packing up “extra stuff lying around the house.”

Clary asks Luke what he’d do if he could see something no one else could see. He misinterprets the question and tells her that of course she sees the world differently, she’s an artist. Clary asks Luke, “If my dad had lived, do you think he’d have been an artist too?”, which is sort of weird phrasing given that, y’know, her dad was a grown-ass man when he died and had plenty of time to refine any artistic talent or inclination he may have had.

Just then, Clary’s mother returns. We get some description of what she looks like; she’s slender, with dark auburn hair. She’s also very pretty, and Clary feels inferior. Great.

This leads into some description of Clary. She’s short, redheaded and freckly, and with a somewhat boyish figure. Clary is convinced that this means she cannot be beautiful and must content herself with being “cute” instead. Clary’s also clumsy. Awesome. Definitely never seen that trait in a young female protagonist before.

Back to the plot. Clary starts to catch on that there’s something fishy going on with the boxes, so she asks her mom about it. After about half a page of hesitation, Jocelyn tells her that they’re going on vacation. “Vacation” in this case means going to the farmhouse Luke owns upstate. They’re going to be there for the entire rest of the summer.

Clary objects — she had made plans with friends already, and she’s taking summer art classes in the city that she paid for with her own money — but Jocelyn says the decision is final, and Luke backs her up. Clary tries to get her mom to let her stay in the city on her own (which is probably not legal, since Clary is a minor, though she’s old enough to be legally working), but her mom won’t let her.

Luke and Jocelyn have a whispered conversation about someone named Bane, who is in Tanzania. Also, there’s talk about how Clary “isn’t Jonathan.” Clary wonders what all this has to do with her dad.

Just as Luke is about to leave, the door flies open. It’s Simon. Luke leaves, and Clary, ignoring her mother’s pleas to stay and talk, promptly exits with Simon.

Once they make it outside, we get some description of where Clary lives; a three-story brownstone in Park Slope. The downstairs tenant is an old lady who styles herself as “Madame Dorothea, Seeress and Prophetess.” As Simon is joking around about how hard it is for prophetesses to get work these days, a man leaves Madame Dorothea’s apartment. He’s given a full description, which involves comparing his skin tone to maple syrup and his eyes to those of a cat, so, well… make of that what you will. Also, he smiles at Clary and she suddenly feels as though she’s going to faint. Okay.

Simon and Clary head to a nearby Mexican restaurant, where Clary explains about the upstate “vacation.” They discuss how Clary’s mom is kind of weird. Clary mentions that she knows very little about her mom’s life prior to Clary’s birth. Simon brings up how Jocelyn has lots of little thin scars all over her back and arms, which Clary has somehow never noticed. (Is this going to be explained later? Really, how do you not notice that your own mom has scars all over her body?)

Clary’s mom calls, but Clary lets it go to voicemail. She decides she’ll call her mom back after the poetry reading. Clary and Simon leave the Mexican place and start walking while chatting about Simon’s band. Apparently the band does very little actual music-playing and mostly sits around arguing about band names and potential logos. Simon goes on about how everyone in the band besides him has a girlfriend, while Clary pays little attention because she’s too busy avoiding looking at anyone for too long, afraid that she’ll start to see things that shouldn’t be there.

Clary’s mom calls once again, and once again Clary doesn’t pick up. The two kids continue on their way to the poetry reading. End chapter.

Thoughts So Far:

Look, I have to concede that this book isn’t all bad. There’s an ominous tone to this chapter which is actually rather effective, particularly in the last part of the chapter; it started to dawn on me as I was reading that, shit, Clary really needs to go home and talk to her mom, because whatever’s going on is more serious than simply an argument over vacation; of course, because Clary’s fifteen years old and mad at her mother, she’s not going to, and by the time she finally does get home it might be too late for dear ol’ Mum.

It’s fairly obvious that Clary’s mom is a Shadowhunter, or used to be; those scars she has are probably from the magic runes demonstrated in chapter 1. Clary’s dad almost certainly did not really die in a car crash, and there is likely a very good reason that Jocelyn doesn’t talk about her life before having Clary. The sudden decision to spend the summer upstate was more than likely Shadowhunter-related. Et cetera, et cetera. I may be reading this differently because this is technically my second reading of the book — though I barely remember my first — but doesn’t this seem very predictable?

While we’re on the subject of predictable, let’s talk about Simon and Clary’s relationship. Seems like every YA fantasy novel is now required to have a love triangle along the lines of the following:

  • attractive-but-doesn’t-know-it female protagonist
  • female protagonist’s male best friend, often someone whom she’s known since childhood; his crush on the protagonist is usually unacknowledged by said protagonist until he outright states it, and nearly always unrequited
  • the true love interest, a mysterious and very handsome boy with whom the protagonist most likely develops an immediate connection and/or mutual obsession

And, come on, even from chapter 1 we could see that yet another of these triangles is setting up between Clary, Simon, and Jace. What’s with these love triangles, anyway? The outcome is always predictable, so it doesn’t even build dramatic tension. If you really want two boys to be fawning over your protagonist, then maybe you should make her polyamorous for some variety. (Alternately, make her uninterested in either of them.)

It’s not even that it’s being badly done here — in fact, this isn’t a very odious example at all. Except for the possible reference to Jace in the form of Clary’s drawing, there’s no sign that Clary has become infatuated at first sight; as for Simon, his crush on Clary is readily apparent, but we aren’t being hit over the head with it. Still, this trope is so overdone in YA fiction that I think even its inclusion deserves an eyeroll.

What we’ve got here is a cookie-cutter YA fantasy setup: teenage girl protag, love triangle, mysterious and somewhat ominous supernatural occurrences (tied to a mysterious and somewhat ominous group, tied ultimately back to the protag), evil supernatural beings, implications that protagonist is crucial to the plot for reasons she herself doesn’t yet realize or understand, and so on. Hell, even small specific details, such as Clary’s clumsiness, are common clichés of the genre. (Not to mention stuff like Clary’s missing dad, which I’m nearly positive will become plot-important later, in part because missing dads are always plot-important.)

It’s not the worst example of any of these things that I’ve ever seen, but, damn, if you take it all together it’s clear how formulaic this is. Maybe if this was truly my first reading I’d be holding out hope that we’d get some deconstruction of these tropes later on, but I honestly can’t remember the book doing anything of the sort (and I live for clever deconstruction of tropes, so I’d probably recall if there was anything like that).

Final note: Clary’s acting remarkably calm for someone who witnessed a freaky supernatural occurrence the day before. I liked the detail about her not wanting to look at anything for too long because she’s afraid that if she does she’ll start to see things that shouldn’t be there, but that’s still an awfully understated reaction considering what she went through. In fact, the opening scene of the story doesn’t seem to logically connect to what’s happening now; its relevance to the current events is questionable, at best, since the sole “mundie” witness barely even has it on her mind. And if the protagonist doesn’t care, then why should we?

Next chapter.

14 Responses to “Book Review: City of Bones (part 2)”

  1. So, I was attempting to determine whether this chapter’s failings were mostly details or specifics, and I came to the following conclusion:

    This book fails almost entirely on a general level. Even though you point out the smaller issues such as the unnecessary exposition, all that seems to be a problem of the author not really understanding how to craft a story, hence the stock plot/characters.

    • That’s the same conclusion I came to in the end of this chapter review.

      • It makes me wonder, though, what this book would look like if the plot outline was given to a more competent author.

      • Probably not that great — I mean, the plot is cookie-cutter stuff, very formulaic. I would say the plot needs reworking more than the sentence-level prose does (though that needs reworking, too).

      • Fair enough. Though I bet a good author in the genre (is it supposed to be science fantasy?) could make something with this plot that wasn’t a steaming fecal release.

      • I consider YA supernatural romance stuff to be its own genre, because works within the genre tend to be super, super formulaic. Short of doing a genre deconstruction, I don’t think there’s any hope for this plot. Even a genre deconstruction would likely involve massive plot changes past the original setup.

      • And that is why I hate this genre with a passion. :-)
        I think the best I could hope for would be a sort of trope-based parody, like most of Terry Pratchett’s works are for adventure/fantasy novels.

      • Either a parody or deconstruction would be good to see.

      • Maybe I’ll try and do that sometime. :D
        It reminded me of an old RLM joke where they added a laugh track to an awkward scene from the Revenge of the Sith. The book could probably become a parody by adding a couple lines per chapter.

  2. Wow I know that if a love triangle done right can be great but it’s so over done in YA but I do used it do but kinda like it was done Noter Dame de Paris (a.k.a The Hunchback of Noter Dame) where all of love interested have good traits and flaws and the one who seems like “Prince Charming” (Pheobus) is the most unlikeable charcter and if you have read the book or seen the French musical Noter Dame De Paris that is saying something but the person who seems to love and not lust after Esmeralda is Qusiamodo but who is deaf and conserid a “beast” but Esmeralda who is sixteen and quite navie and vain who sadly falls in with Pheobus and pays the price for her Inoccence. Then you have Frollo who is a anti-hero but he obsessed with her and eventually goes insane but has a very kind heart he took in Qusiamodo as a son. My point is that the love triangle well more of a love square worked because it wasn’t cliched.
    Love this blog keep it up!

  3. The first book, as you’ve mentioned, was tolerable. Standard genre fare in a genre that is standardly sub-par. When I was younger and hadn’t developed my sky-high standards and chronically critical attitude, I was in love with these books. I was MAD about them. I was in the fandom for a while! I joined forums! I tried writing fanfic! I had (and still have) signed copies of the first three books! But I grew up. The trilogy was doubled in size and when I picked up the fourth book… It was tragic. It was horrible. If you think this is passable I hope you never read past City of Glass because it gets so much worse. This series was a big deal for me in middle school for a couple of different reasons, so seeing how awful it was is unpleasant. Now I’m reading every critical review of this series that I can find, for more reasons I don’t quite understand. And since this one is just getting off the ground, you might be seeing a lot of me in these comments! I knew the first three books back to front at one point, so if you have any questions I’ll be watching.

    (if that was a bit long, here’s the short of it: i’m an ex-fan of these books, they only get worse from here, i’m taking a sick sense of joy from seeing them critically analyzed, i may be hanging around for a while and i can answer any questions you may have. so, hello, i guess.)

    • Man, I know this feeling. There are some books I loved as a kid that are practically unreadable to me now.

      I’d love to hear your perspective as an ex-fan of this series! Like I said, I know I read book one and I may or may not have read through book two as well, but I never considered myself a fan and was certainly never part of the fandom.

  4. Morbidthing Says:

    Is it weird that I didn’t like City of Bone, but I liked the prequel trilogy? I mean, it wasn’t the best series I had ever read, but it was oddly entertaining.

    If you want a good urban fantasy book, I’d suggest Skulduggery Pleasant. It starts off with a 12 year old girl as the protagonist, but she grows as the series progresses, just like in Harry Potter. She’s partners with a 300 year old living skeleton, and they have adventures, solve mysteries, and kill eldritch abominations. There’s very little romance in the book series, save for in book six, where there is a love triangle, but the author was making fun of how the phenomenon plays out in young adult fiction. It’s even funnier because one of the characters is an obvious Edward Cullen espy, and he gets mocked constantly.

    • I didn’t even know there was a prequel trilogy!

      I have heard some (very good) things about Skullduggery Pleasant. I’ll have to read it sometime.

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