Occasionally I wonder if there’s a limited number of times you can tell a given type of story before it has to get shelved for a while.
I’ll demonstrate what I mean with a guessing game: a story where slightly-more-than-ordinary young people stumble upon a whole world of magical forces and beings with amazing powers, just as a great evil threatens that world and the people our hero has grown close to as they go through love, adventure and personal growth together.
So: quiz time. Which of the following popular series am I talking about?
A) Buffy the Vampire Slayer
B) Harry Potter
C) The Percy Jackson series
D) The Chronicles of Narnia
The correct answer, of course, is none of those. As should be obvious from the title of this post, I am in fact referring to the Young Adult soon-to-be hexology the Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare.
Oddly enough I originally read the first book, City of Bones, not long after it came out in 2007, but after some kind of bookstore equivalent of marinating, the Mortal Instruments has come out swinging in the past few months, driven further on by the upcoming film adaptation, and new instalments doubling the size of what began as a trilogy, alongside a set of prequel stories.
The Mortal Instruments features Clary Fray, a gifted artist and teenage introvert who, spending a night out with her best friend Simon, sees several other young people capture, interrogate and kill someone. A someone who crumples up and vanishes before her eyes. Her shock is matched by this group of eccentrics’ shock that she can even see them.
She crosses their path yet again after her mother is brutally kidnapped and a demon sent after Clary herself. Rescued by the brash young warrior Jace, she gets the veil pulled from her eyes and learns she, and her mother, are members of an ancient warrior nation descended from Angels known as the Shadowhunters, who police the underworld of werewolves, vampires, fair folk and similar, while warring to hold demons from the void at bay. Valentine, a rogue Shadowhunter has returned, to resume his genocidal campaign against all magical non-humans. With Simon and the broody but dashing Jace at her side, she strives to rescue her mother and defeat Valentine’s search to claim the Mortal Instruments, the devices that will give him the power to carry out his plans, and discover the secrets of her heritage as she goes.
Let’s get the obvious point out of the way: a teenager with a secret magical heritage, meeting a group of people who live in that world, and going up against a villain whose name starts with V who’s returned to advance a racist agenda by way of magical artefacts? Why, yes, that is the exact plot of Harry Potter. Indeed, if you know what to look for, the brushwork is unmistakable.
The story is laden with clichés. Clary is the gifted but withdrawn teenaged girl who doesn’t think very highly of herself but is much-beloved by most everyone around her; Jace is the sarcastic, brooding bad boy who likewise is adored by everyone else, and who has a soft side which our heroine must tease out even though she’d be well within her rights to hit him with a broom; there’s a running feud between vampires and werewolves in the background and, lest we forget, there’s a bloody love triangle! That dies a slow and painful death aroundabout book three but its last throes involve a long-lost-sibling angle that makes the Luke-Leia kiss in Empire Strikes Back look normal in comparison.
The character types are so familiar that they struggle to come to life for me. Oddly, the characters who engage me the most are the secondary ones who fall outside the normal pattern: Maia, the runaway-turned-werewolf, Simon, the wisecracking nerd, and the shady but good-humoured Magnus are far more colourful than the core characters a lot of the time, and are by far the best written. Jace’s adoptive siblings start out no more complex than the basic sketches of their characters but ultimately grow into more nuanced people, particularly Alec.
As a villain, Valentine is more compelling than some. He’s quite rational and direct, without resorting to boasts or overt propaganda. The exact details of his evil plan seem to alter from book to book somewhat, in a way that doesn’t clearly say whether his plan is evolving or if Clare is just making up new dimensions to widen the scope of things. A greater focus on the mystery aspects might have been useful.
All this speaks to a certain immaturity of the talent. It’s the kind of thing you turn out for your Writing classes in high school. The thing that’s most puzzling about it is how much there is. In the story there are three Mortal Instruments, introduced one after another as Valentine advances his plans. Standard procedure, right? Seven Harry Potter books, seven Horcruxes. The pattern of the trilogy is fulfilled, the plot resolved, the battles won. And yet there’s two more books after that, soon to be three. I’ve only reached the fourth, City of Fallen Angels, so far, and it draws off of loose ends left in book three and continues several character arcs that normally would have been labelled ‘happily ever after’ and left at that. A lot of the action seems less to involve Clary and Jace than to revolve around them while advancing the arcs of characters like Simon and Alec. In a sense, Clare is now writing her own story’s continuation fan fiction.
Early on, therefore, I was prepared to brush the Mortal Instruments off as fun but a trifle angsty and indulgent (though less so since I realized that the author is using a pen name) but the more I thought about it, the more I found that Mortal Instruments did achieve some rather nifty subversions of the standard plot. The most obvious one is at the beginning where Clary storms out on her mother after a last-minute announcement that they’re heading to the cottage for the rest of the summer. But before they even get packed, Clary’s mother is attacked and the plot takes off. From Narnia to the Spiderwick Chronicles, the framing device of kids being dragged off to the country in times of tension has done long service, but Mortal Instruments shortcuts all that and the magical realm is woven into the streets, parks and back alleys of New York. Yes it’s urban fantasy, still a minor province of the genre, to which Charles de Lint and Jim Butcher are virtually the only major contributors.
The properties of the Mortal Instruments are explained pretty clearly throughout; this is a pet peeve of mine regarding the Lord of the Rings, in that the book never explains what exactly the Rings of Power actually do.
The other thing I like about the setting is that, much like the magical world of Harry Potter, once you get past the cool factor it’s a society riddled with its own share of injustice and prejudice, and this gets examined and challenged in a way that Rowling never really got around to in her series.
The drama makes for a page-turner, even if it does feel like it came out of a high school soap opera. There is one thing it does that a lot of stories like this don’t; there’s no way that I can say this without sounding like a bit of a pervert, but I find it a little annoying when teen romances lack sex. Anybody who remembers being a teenager can attest that one’s affection for a potential partner might have been sappy and romantic but wasn’t any less driven by simple hormones, and leaving it out often strikes me as dishonest or spineless. Clare takes a while to work up to that point, but the progression seems natural. Best of all, the only thing stopping the main relationship from finally getting that far isn’t any high-minded notion of decency on either the part of the characters or the author, but the simple fact that Clary realizes they haven’t got any articles of birth control on hand. No Bella Swan she!
You could read the fact that Clary makes that call as a reinforcement of the old ‘girls are the guardians of purity’ angle, but my gut at least says Clare isn’t going for that and by and large the frustrations of the romance are mostly teenage struggles to distinguish love from friendship from lust.
So, to my own surprise, I quite like the Mortal Instruments. They’re neither original nor intellectually deep, but they are fun, interesting and by an author with a wide range of reading informing what she does. I still think that it’s a closing chapter in this sequence of stories about young people in realms of magic and adventure. Soon the only way to tell this kind of story will be with a subversive or ironic approach. Until then, we may as well enjoy ourselves.