City of Bones is the first book in Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments—a Young Adult fantasy-adventure series in which an unassuming teen, Clary Fray, stumbles upon a supernatural New York City underworld of wizards, werewolves, faeries and vampires and is drawn to the the Shadowhunters, a race of warriors who have taken it upon themselves to keep the peace and who who augment their already superior physical powers with magical runes that they mark into their flesh.
If you are looking for a mix of supernatural creatures, fast-paced action and obsessive life-or-death romance, this novel is a great read. The story flits from fight to fight—a nightclub assassination, a demon home invasion, a melee with vampires and werewolves, a dangerous encounter with a greater demon and a huge climatic battle—as well as from revelation to revelation. Amid all the carnage and plot twists, Clary falls madly in love with a cool (in every sense of the word) and infuriatingly conceited Shadowhunter, Jace, while dealing with her mostly platonic feelings for Simon, the longtime friend who is not-so-secretly infatuated with her. With all of this mayhem and longing taking place within a few weeks, the novel is definitely a page turner.
Whether you enjoy the novel or not, however, depends on what you are looking for and how willing you are to overlook its many flaws. These include:
- A derivative story: The story never really moves beyond the usual genre clichés (e.g., so-called unattractive girl must choose between two desirable guys who are both crazy about her) while heavily borrowing its heroes, villains, motives and plot twists from a wide range of sources such as the Harry Potter series, Star Wars and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Some readers may end up getting distracted playing spot the allusion, but for other readers, the clichés and borrowed elements may give the story a familiar, warm and comfortable feel—like wearing a favourite old sweater that fits perfectly.
- Annoying characters: Clary’s selfishness, Jace’s narcissism and Simon’s foolhardiness can make them unsympathetic. Of course, these are characteristics of many teens (I can certainly claim to have had at least two of those traits as a teen), so they are not unrealistic. They are, however, still annoying traits.
- Stylistic problems: These pop up repeatedly throughout the series. Kind-of-big words such as translucent are frequently misused, physical descriptions of people are inconsistent and descriptive passages are often awkwardly constructed or just don’t ring true. (In her Amazon review, M. gives several specific examples: It’s like watching an overly-expository trainwreck, only more boring). Regarding the dialogue, the teen characters tend to spout pop-culture-laced snarky one-liners and quick comebacks. Some of the lines are witty, but with so many people sharing the same brand of sarcastic humour, it is sometimes difficult to tell who is saying what. The baddie, in contrast, goes for a more pompous declamatory style that comes close to turning him into a pantomime villain.
- A lack of gravity: I cannot explain this in any detail without using a lot of spoilers, but I think if you compare the books in this series to other popular fantasies and adventures—Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games—you may notice that although the heroes may face similarly harsh tests that are of similarly high stakes, the other books are better able to show the gravity of the situation and the horrible sacrifices that need to be made.
Almost all of these problems can be easily solved and should have been picked up by an editor, so they can rub some readers the wrong way. In the aforementioned review, M. writes:
The sheer number of errors, derivative ideas, and pages of copy & pasted fanfic bits is hideously sloppy and exemplary of lazy writing and lazier editing. It’s insulting to the reader to not try to fix any of these problems, and then to expect the consumer to shell out their money for something that isn’t new, isn’t different, isn’t even coherent, and frankly just isn’t very good. Don’t waste your money on it.
That is just one negative review. The Amazon page for City of Bones has a far greater number of favourable reviews.
This is probably the greatest book I have ever read, rivaled only by Harry Potter or maybe the Hunger Games. I am a huge fantasy fan, and after Harry Potter, I thought that I would never find a book like that again. Boy, was I wrong. I was hooked from the very first page. I finished the book within 2 days or so. It is very well written and has humor in all of the right places. When I first heard of it, I thought it would be some sappy romance. But no! Violence at every turn! This is an awesome book, and I reccomend it for ages 13+ (Wow!, by Bookworm 13)
So what is it—a fantastic book, a badly written mess or something between the two extremes? The answer really depends on your own personal preferences. What are you looking for in a book and how much, if at all, would this book’s flaws distract and bother you?
As for my own opinion, I enjoyed reading the books and am looking forward to the final installment in the series, but did feel distracted by some of the flaws. They were a little jarring, like speed bumps, slowing me down and making the ride less enjoyable.
In The Mortal Instruments series, one of the main themes is about choices and consequences, but the messages are muddied. Throughout the series, characters talk about the importance of the choices they make and the importance of free will (“Free will is what makes us Heaven’s creatures”), yet characters are frequently turned evil, harmed or killed outright through no fault of their own and with nothing they could have done to prevent their fate. For example, a major villain in the later books was born as a result of an experiment in which his mother was fed demon blood. Throughout his childhood, he was trained to be a merciless killer. With his soul, if he still has one, so infected. Is his evil behavior really a matter of choice?
Another example is Simon’s involvement with the vampires. In City of Bones, Simon, who at the time knows next to nothing about the supernatural world, attends a wizard-hosted party and manages to get himself turned into a rat AND get abducted by vampires after sipping a faerie drink.Though he manages to de-rodent himself, the experience with the vampires has unfortunate and what appear to be permanent consequences for him. Simon later suffers from a kind of blood-based compulsion to return to the vampires that rat-napped him. Because he enters their nest on his own “free will”, the vampires are free to attack him without fear of punishment. How can magical compulsion be mistaken for free will?
If you are looking for an essay topic for this series, “Free Will and the Mortal Instruments” would be a good choice. Many characters like to talk about it, but few seem able to exercise it.
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