City of Bones (part the second), Cassandra Clare

This isn’t going to be a completely spoiler-filled post, but as a person who hates to be ruined for a book  I haven’t read, I feel obliged to warn you that it crosses into spoiler territory. I won’t tell you what happens (past a few plot points in the first two or three chapters), but I do want to talk about some of the emotional choices made by the protagonist, and if that will ruin a book you potentially want to read, stop here.

* * *

If you’re still with me, I’m going to assume you’ve read the book/don’t mind spoilers/don’t plan to read it, and I’ll dive right in to what I see as the greatest disappointment to an otherwise enjoyable fantasy adventure. The protagonist, Clary Fray, is a fifteen year old girl and the daughter of a widow. At the beginning of the book, it is well-established that she has a tempestuous relationship with her mother. The exchanges we see between them are limited to heated arguments and misunderstandings – a relatively believable situation that I’m sure many people can relate to. Within the first few chapters, Clary’s mother disappears under violent circumstances, and the rest of the plot is put into motion. Clary, unsure whether he mother is even still alive, is determined to rescue her.

With what resources would a fifteen year old girl go about this? This is an urban fantasy, so we know the police will not be involved (not when they would immediately contact social services and remove Clary from any further investigation). No, Clary – with absolutely no information besides a panicked phone call from her mother, disconnected moments after she tells her daughter to stay away from their apartment at all costs; a second call to the closest thing she has to a father figure, who tells her to never to contact him again; and the appearance of a beautiful, seemingly magical (and broodingly handsome) boy she met one night earlier – decides she’s going to find her (potentially alive but certainly in terrible danger) mother herself.

I actually wouldn’t have a problem with this if it weren’t for what followed. I have no difficulty suspending my disbelief in the possibility of a teenager succeeding whether countless other adults with more experience have failed (and died). I was raised on a steady diet of books just like this with protagonists even younger, facing even greater odd. It’s exhilarating to tout the talents of young people – their ingenuity, bravery, and occasional ignorance of the shades of grey existing between moral absolutes. Books like that inspire hope and batter at the idea that children are less capable, when really, it is only that they have less experience to temper their natural abilities.

The problem for me is not the idea of a girl with zero resources facing down a brutal villain in a world she barely understands; it’s not even that Clary is distracted by her position in a love triangle (oh, if only I had a nickel for every love triangle I – or anyone I knew – faced at fifteen…I would have, maybe, seven cents…). Those are both standard for the genre. No, the two things I find unbelievable are 1. how little consideration any plan of attack is given (by all means, token adult, allow these teenagers to throw themselves into incredibly dangerous situations without the slightest protest or backup plan) and 2. how very little time is given to the relationship between Clary and her mother after the disappearance.

The first point annoys me, but knowing how brilliantly sneaky real teenagers are at getting away with far less dangerous plans they have their hearts set on, I can cut the plot a little slack. I would like to believe that the gorgeous but also well-trained man-child Clary meets in the first chapter would have spent some time studying strategy during his life-long tutoring to become a demon-hunter, but, you know, hormones, or something. The guys I knew at fifteen, well, they were incredibly smart, but they often seemed clueless about manipulation and planning. Only those on the extreme ends of the spectrum (uber-geeks and jocks) spent much time considering strategy on any level. My female friends, on the other hand, strategized about everything; often, it felt like living inside a critical game Risk. So sure, I can buy that Jace would barrel headlong into dire situations, and perhaps that Clary would follow him in that embarrassing way that most of us, regardless of gender, can remember doing from time to time when feeling both smitten and emotionally vulnerable. I get it. I don’t love it, but I understand.

The element I cannot reconcile, however, is the relationship (or lack thereof) between Clary and her mother, Jocelyn. They fight, sure. We are made to understand the Clary feels intimidated by her mother’s beauty and talent, and that they maintain a relatively distant relationship with each other. We never learn enough about Jocelyn from her own perspective to understand this, and Clary’s feelings are so scattered that it’s impossible to get a solid read on their history from her.

Surprisingly, I don’t doubt that she loves her mother, despite their difficult relationship, but I never get the feeling that she needs her. Clary spends a few sentences worth of time right after the disappearance crying over it, and then we never get another moment of genuine grief or acknowledgement about what it would mean for her if her mother was dead. We see some anger, and we see her steadfastly pushing forward to find Jocelyn, but it mostly feels robotic. Clary’s more energized by the pain inflicted on the boy she’s known for a week than she is by what has happened to the woman who raised her.

Even that could be legitimate if I were certain Clary and Jocelyn had only a cursory relationship with each other, but that’s never made clear. Honestly, I know people who hate their mothers who still would be deeply affected by a situation like this, if only because, regardless of the relationship, the bond between parent and child has a tremendous capacity for both joy and pain. The rarest thing to evolve in a family is true indifference. Indifference masking disappointment, frustration, abuse or abandonment? Certainly. But complete apathy? It may happen, but I personally haven’t witnessed it. And regardless of the potential for indifference, that isn’t what’s insinuated in the book. The author wants us to believe that Clary and her mother are…something to each other. Maybe she doesn’t even know what they’re meant to be or what their history is, and as a result, as a reader, I got increasingly frustrated.

If it were my mother, who admittedly, I’m very close to, who had gone missing and was potentially dead, the rage, despair, and fear I felt would eclipse everything else. If I had moments of relief or rest, they would be followed closely by unbearable anguish. I would be thinking of heroics, revenge, and my own future, in that order. If a cute boy happened to appear to help me, great. Maybe after we saved my mother, I would have time to appreciate that fact. Maybe, in a moment of terrible loneliness, I would even choose to bury the pain and (given age-appropriate conditions) make out with said boy; after which, I would feel incredibly guilty that I had allowed myself to do such a thing when my mother was in mortal danger.

There is just so much potential for angst and savior complexes here, and it goes completely unmined! This kind of story was made for character-building agony! I don’t understand how a writer who came up through the ranks of fan fiction could possibly miss the opportunity to torture her characters. There’s no doubt in my mind that the resolution would be much more satisfying if Clary had suffered more along the way. Clare sets up an interesting premise, and she creates a vivid world for her characters to play in, but ultimately, I needed her to commit to the pain.

11 thoughts on “City of Bones (part the second), Cassandra Clare

  1. If you weren’t so keen on The Mortal Instruments, try The Infernal Devices instead. In my opinion a much better series with much more likeable characters. If you’re not too put off reading any more of her books then you might find you enjoy her second series more. I like to think she found her feet a bit with the second series and I think it really shows. x

      1. Good :) I enjoyed TMI but maybe because I read it when I was a bit younger. I have to admit I enjoyed the latest book in that series less than I expected, but I absolutely loved the last Infernal Devices book which came out in March. x

  2. I’m not sure if you’re willing to read further in the series, but I think that Clare’s intent was always to build a rather long saga (there will be six books when it’s complete). So in a lot of ways the sort of shallow beginning in this book gets fleshed out more in the subsequent novels. She’s definitely not worried about torturing her characters or getting a little controversial while doing it… I’m with you though in that I find Clary’s character lacking. I wanted to like her so much more.

    I think what kept me reading was that I liked that it was a really action based series, rather than completely focusing on swooning romance (though there’s a healthy dose of that!). I felt exactly the same as you in the first novel about Clary and her mother, and I think that what you picked up on about their relationship being a bit cool gets explained in much more detail in the later books.

    I agree with Emily that the Infernal Devices trilogy is far superior to The Mortal Instruments. The characters are developed further and are incredibly likable and their motives are easier to understand. I also love a good period piece, so there’s that.

    1. I think I’ll have to check out her second series. I don’t dislike Clare, and I don’t even hate the book – I just had such high expectations that I was disappointed by the execution. Of course, it was her first non-fic novel, so there were bound to be some issues; I can totally understand that and give her another shot :)

  3. You would have seven cents? I don’t think I’d even have one! The love triangle irritated me as well; if there’s romance in my novel, can’t it just be one on one true love and all that? I prefer my angst to come from another source – like you said about Clary and her mom. I hope that storyline is developed more in the sequels.

    1. Surprisingly, I had a number of geeky musician guy friends in high school who always seemed to be part of disastrous love triangles. They never ended well, and whenever I see that in books, I just sigh and laugh.

  4. I love this insight into the book. When I read it I felt there was something missing but wasn’t sure what. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. The apathy makes her come across as selfish and glib so I never connected to her character! Genius! ;)

    1. Thanks! I have to admit I am curious to see what they do with the film version of her. Maybe she’s improved? I can hope, right? I really wanted her to be a powerful heroine, and it was so disappointing that she was never fleshed out.

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