With the new television show coming out next month, I decided to sit myself down and reread The Mortal Instruments series. I just got done with the first book, City of Bones, and I can safely say that I was not blown away by the writing. Now that I’m older and more aware of social justice issues and my own internalized sexism, I definitely loved Clary, our main character, a lot more than I did on my first read through, but the downside to that is that I detested just about everything and everyone else. In theory, the ideas behind City of Bones are fine. The plot is fairly compelling, the relationships between characters give us significant conflict, and the worldbuilding is interesting—but the story doesn’t know what it’s doing half the time, and many of the good things about the book get lost under the bad.
Spoilers for an eight-year-old book up ahead.
Our story begins when fifteen-year-old Clary, an awkward clutz and artist, accidentally stumbles upon a murder at a nightclub. Even more horrifying, no one else can see what’s happening—it’s like the murderers and their victim are invisible to everyone else but her. From there, Clary finds out that things like demons and faeries are real and she is whisked away on an adventure. Clary is a shadowhunter, someone with angel blood who hunts demons, which is why she can see the supernatural, and normal humans, or mundanes, can’t. Clary’s mom was a shadowhunter as well, and she has spent the past fifteen years hiding from Valentine, Clary’s father and the main villain of our story.
I’ve only reread the first book in our trilogy thus far, and well… I’ve read better. It’s not that City of Bones is bad, per se, so much as it just isn’t good. Much like The Inheritance Cycle and Twilight, the ideas behind the series are really interesting, but the poor writing ruins it. City of Bones has a lot of potential for good and diverse representation—we’ve got a female protagonist, two characters are gay, one of those characters is both Asian and part of another oppressed minority group, the book touches on discussing homophobia, and there’s a lot of interesting mythology, to name some of the things it features. Unfortunately, it lacks any kind of nuance and doesn’t quite know what to do with all the social issues it touches on. Whenever I read books, I like to go through them with a red pen to document my thoughts—this is both a blessing and an annoyance. On the one hand, I get to reread how stupid
my thoughts were when I was nineteen, but on the other hand, it really put into perspective for me my own internalized sexism back then. That in turn made me realize all the internalized sexism in the series and how City of Bones fails at handling social justice issues.
To start, Clary has two love interests, Simon and Jace. They are both abusive dickheads. When I first read the book, I thought that Simon was the best character ever—he’s a nice mundane guy who tries really hard, only for Clary to fall in love with Jace. Now I can see what a piece of shit he is. His storyline is that he gets friendzoned and can’t handle it. At one point, he starts hanging out with Isabelle, a shadowhunter like Clary, and even though Clary doesn’t like Isabelle—cue pointless girl-on-girl hate—she doesn’t say anything about it, because she respects Simon’s decision. It turns out that Simon was only going out with Isabelle to make Clary jealous. So when Clary hooks up with Jace instead, Simon gets pissed and accuses her of breaking his heart. I mean, I suppose he could have just told Clary he likes her, instead of using Isabelle as a prop, but I don’t think the author ever realized that Simon was in the wrong at all.
Then there’s Jace, a sword wielding demon-slaying shadowhunter whose hair and eyes are described on just about every page. When Simon gets mad at Clary, Jace responds by… also getting mad at Clary, because Simon liking her is her fault, apparently. Jace is supposed to be our Draco-in-leather-pants character—he’s a brooding badboy with an angsty past and a heart of gold deep down. Most of what he says is supposed to be sarcastic and lighthearted, as a way to hide his oh so deep and meaningful emotional pain. Instead, he comes across as a jackass. At one point, we get an excerpt written from his POV, and he thinks about how he wants to hurt Clary and that he’s never wanted to hurt a girl before meeting her. It’s hard to say whether or not the narrative supports his thoughts—Clary never finds out about them in order to be angry, and I think she would be, but the book has a habit of making her feel guilty for Jace’s and Simon’s actions. It’s a pretty dangerous message to send, even if it was accidental.
Probably the most hilariously poorly written character is none other than Darth Valentine, who betrayed the light side of the Force shadowhunters and aligned himself with demons—in his quest to kill all demons, because that makes sense, I guess. We meet him at the end of the book, where we discover that Clary and Jace are actually siblings and Valentine does a whole “I am your father speech”. At one point, he gets into a verbal spat with another shadowhunter, Obi-Luke Kenobi, about Clary’s mom, Jocelyn Amidala, and gives us a “you turned her against me” rant. The entire chapter is pure gold. It’s also a glaring example of the bad characterization in this book. Normally the point of having the main villain be a family member is to create some kind of internal conflict that both the villain and the protagonist go through. Thor and Loki both still love each other, for example, and it’s hard for them to grapple with their feelings while battling. Luke and Vader are on two opposite sides of a war, due to a difference in ideals, and they both struggle with that and their love for one another as well. Eventually, it’s only due to their relationship and bond that Sidious is defeated. City of Bones has a different approach: Valentine doesn’t care about Clary and Clary doesn’t care about Valentine. He attempts to murder her, she wants him dead, and they never have any emotional qualms or character development because of it. There’s no point to them being related.
The story also likes to develop characters through telling and not showing. Every character is developed by other characters talking about them—so Valentine is then developed as pure evil and he’s rather flat because of that. His last name is Morgenstern, which means “morning star”. Our villain is so evil he’s literally named Satan.
However, there’s no greater example of bad characterization than Clary. Clary, being new to the shadowhunters, is the person we’re supposed to relate to, because, like us, she doesn’t know what’s going on and needs things explained to her. There’s a huge chasm between being ignorant and being stupid—and I feel as though our author wasn’t aware of that. Clary needs everything explained to her—and I do mean everything. She can’t figure out a single thing for herself no matter how obvious. At one point, Simon is kidnapped by vampires, and Clary and Jace go to rescue him. The whole chapter reads as filler, until it spontaneously becomes a plot point in the next book. During the rescue, they met someone named Raphael who randomly spouts phrases like “¡Dios mío!” because he’s Hispanic and that’s what Hispanic people as envisioned by white people do. Despite being a mundane, Raphael knows a surprising amount about vampires. He has a scar on his neck, hangs around the vampire lair, and even knows his way around it despite claiming to have never been inside it before. Instead of immediately becoming suspicious that he’s leading them into a trap, because he might just be a vampire, or at the very least, he’s not being honest about something, Clary just wonders how he got his scar.
These problems would be bad enough, but the writing sucks too. Not only is the foreshadowing as subtle as a truck crashing through a wall, the prose is littered with odd paragraph breaks that serve no purpose and it’s riddled with mistakes and inconsistencies. Words following colons are randomly capitalized and then lowercased, there’s a continuous mis- and overuse of adverbs, quotation marks are missing, and sometimes when we get dialogue it’s not clear who’s speaking. At another point, “Hodge’s nose” is written as “Hodge’s noise”. Faerie or fairy, which spelling should be used? Well, who the fuck cares? Let’s just use both and change between them whenever we fucking feel like it! On the bright side, my OCD didn’t immediately give me a panic attack when I came across this problem, so at the very least I can say the book helped my anxiety. But even then, that’s not a compliment. It is hard to believe that a real person, somewhere out there in the world, was paid real money to edit this book.
And despite all these problems, I still love this series. I love it almost as much as The Inheritance Cycle. I don’t know why. The bad things far outweigh the good. There’s a decent story buried deep somewhere in its pages, but it’s hard to reach, and I would be remiss to recommend this series to anyone, despite my love. From what I’ve been able to gleam from some of the interviews for the Shadowhunters TV series, it looks like the show is going to address some of these problems. I can only hope it does a good job, because the book sure as hell didn’t.