Review: City of Bones

City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

Cassandra Clare is what we geeks call a Promoted Fangirl. (Warning: clicking on that link will take you to TVTropes, where you will spend the rest of your day.) A prolific fan fiction author in the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings fandoms under the name of Cassandra Claire, she got published in 2007, further burnishing the hopes of every geek writer that someday, they might get published. (Her fan fiction subsequently vanished from the Internet, but ask a geek other than yours truly and she’ll find you the .pdf files.) I only know of her from her well-known Lord of the Rings parody, The Very Secret Diaries. However, she’s written much more for Harry Potter–and I have to admit, it shows in City of Bones.

City of Bones follows fifteen year old Clary Fray, who witnesses a highly unusual murder at a club. The murderers are a trio of tattooed teenagers with old-fashioned weapons and the murder victim vanishes into thin air. Her encounter with these Shadowhunters, sworn to rid the world of demons, is just the tip of the iceberg as Clary’s life turns upside down as her mother vanishes and she vanquishes a demon herself. Clary is definitely not just a mundane young lady.

City of Bones walks a very, very fine line between Harry Potter homage and lifting directly from Harry Potter. Those who don’t see the supernatural world are called “mundanes” or “mundies”, and the young Shadowhunters reside in a hidden institute run by a gentleman with a bird. I find that to be homage–while these situations are similar, they’re distinctive enough from the inspirational material. But the character of Luke, a friend of Clary’s mother, reminds me a bit too much of Snape, and the backstory of the main villain, a fellow called Valentine (hmm!), sounds suspiciously similar to Voldemort’s time in school. While I haven’t watched enough Buffy The Vampire Slayer to tell, I’m told the grouping of the main characters is similar. To be completely fair, there’s nothing new under the sun, but when it came to set up her novels, it doesn’t feel like Clare ventured too far from her fandoms.

I don’t want to mislead you and make you believe that City of Bones isn’t at least a little original. Clare has a very unique and inventive system of magic that ties in with most religions. One of the best scenes involve Jace and Clary finding weapons in a Catholic church. The Shadowhunters themselves aren’t magic, but the tools they use are, including their runic Marks, which help them in combat. The only true magic belongs to the demons, called Downworlders. The backstory of the Shadowhunters is interesting, especially in light of one of the Shadowhunter’s agnosticism. I also quite liked the parabatai, a pair of warriors that complement each other perfectly–Jace and his friend Alec are a pair of these. Mixed demon blood creates vampires, werewolves, and all sorts of supernatural creatures. Watching Clare’s supernatural creations run amok in Brooklyn and New York is downright fun.

Clary is impulsive and has an awful temper, which is a bit refreshing for a heroine, but she’s also quite obtuse when it comes to realizing her friend Simon is obviously in love with her. Irritatingly, she instantly hates Isabelle, the tall, elegant Shadowhunter, simply for being beautiful, bossy and getting Simon’s attention. I liked Isabelle, which may be why Clary’s dislike for her was off putting for me. She was competent and fabulous. Their reconciliation at the end is so quick that it almost feels insincere. Out of all the characters, I enjoyed Jace the most–he’s a dashingly handsome jerk, but a funny one, and he’s hiding something under that smile. There’s also Magnus, the flamboyant High Warlock of Brooklyn, who throws birthday parties for his cat, Chairman Meow, and is remarkably powerful and serious when need be.

The love triangle between Clary, Simon, and Jace feels a little forced to me, especially in light of how Clary sees (or doesn’t see) Simon. I would say that there’s an obvious choice, at least until Simon does something very, very awesome. I will not spoil it for you. You’ll know it when you see it. I was quite happy to find queer characters in City of Bones. The Shadowhunters are quite behind the real world in terms of acceptance, even for women as Shadowhunters, let alone gays, allowing Clare to play with that conflict. It was quite refreshing for a young adult novel.

The writing can be a bit stilted or clunky at times (“burning like cold jewels” is pushing it for me), and the humor can be hit or miss. While I appreciate Clare making reference to fandom, referencing her own fan fanfiction was a little tacky. I don’t know if this is because this is Clare’s first novel, but it really takes at least half the novel until Clare hits her stride. However, once Clare hits her stride, the action pieces she gives us are wonderful. The scene where Clary and Jace infiltrate a vampire hideout is really the turning point for the novel, finally giving us something new and fresh. Combined with her system of magic, they’re well thought out and honestly exciting, if not thrilling. Battles are actually difficult and possibly fatal.

This is yet another series I’m not going to follow through to the end. While I enjoyed it once it hit its stride, it took a little too long for me, and if any more time is devoted to the older generation, I think I’ll develop the nagging feeling that I’ve read this all before.

Bottom line: While City of Bones has an interesting fantasy world and some killer action scenes, its sometimes clunky writing and hit or miss humor can irritate, and its homage to Harry Potter borders on lifting directly from it.

I got this book from the public library.

13 thoughts on “Review: City of Bones

  1. I felt the same as you – this book was too closely related to its predecessors, and I got frustrated with it. I haven’t bothered with the sequel for that reason; it all just felt too familiar.

  2. I got this out the library (with rubbish UK cover) but haven’t read it yet. Loved the Very Secret Diaries back in the day. I’ve heard elsewhere that this is derivative of HP but then Harry Potter itself to my mind had some very derivative stuff along with the originality so I’m still planning to give City of Bones a go.

    Oh, and I love TV Tropes too! I’ve spent HOURS there!

    • See, I think there’s a difference between homage and directly ripping off. Still, it’s worth a shot, especially if you liked The Very Secret Diaries.

      There are few things like glancing up at your browser window at midnight, noticing the twelve TVTropes tabs, and realizing that you are going to read every single one of those pages.

  3. I’ve seen a few reviews for this – all sort of mixed. I like the idea of a Harry Potter homage but I do get annoyed when I feel the author didn’t put enough into it and was just happy to ripoff.

  4. when i got this book i loved it. I hadn’t read any of the others but i want to get the rest of the series and continue reading 😀

  5. I can see some character similarities within groups that are not all related/from the same generation of characters. Just look at the first letters of their names!

    Clary: Lily/Harry
    Simon: Snape
    Jace: James
    Luke: Lupin (wherwolf!)
    Hodge: Dumbledore/Peter Pettigrew
    Valentine: Voldemort

    Also other similarities-

    Institute- Hogwarts
    mundanes- muggles
    shadow hunters: aurors
    demons: death eaters

  6. Pingback: Page to Screen: The Mortal Instruments — City of Bones (2013) | The Literary Omnivore

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