Clary Fray goes to Pandemonium expecting to dance and have fun with her best friend Simon, not see three teenagers kill a boy they claim is a demon. It opens her eyes to a whole other world intertwined with hers, one full of demons, warlocks, vampires, werewolves, faeries- and the part human, part angel race called the Nephilim, or Shadowhunters, who secretly protect mankind from demonic danger. When her home is attacked by demons and her mother kidnapped, she’ll have to trust the Shadowhunters to help her, but along the way, she’ll learn that everything she thought she knew- the person she thought she was- is just story. She’ll have to face danger head on and risk everything- even her heart- to learn the truth and save the people she loves.
From the very beginning, we’re thrust right into the action, and that pace never lets up. Even when we step away from the more immediate action, we’re still caught up in the personal struggles that, as much as the actual sequence of events, define this book (and the series as a whole). We’re never dropped into a lull, because even the quieter moments are deceptive, so charged and important that you really can’t call it a break from the action.
The world is a captivating one, ours but with so many hidden layers woven through it. It has a lot of beauty to it- beautiful people, beautiful things- but we also learn very quickly that the things that are most beautiful are also the most dangerous. There’s a barely restrained savagery, a violence just waiting to burst forth at any sign of a struggle. There are some who know to hold it back until there’s a proven reason for it, but there are far more who look for an excuse to unleash it, perhaps even provoke it, either out of arrogance of simple thrill-seeking. We’re so captivated by the beauties, lured to complacence by a simple physical fascination, that we’re often blindsided by the behaviors we should have known to expect. We’re caught by it, again and again, the traps laid so well that even when the violence surprises us, it’s still an inherent part of the world. It’s never out of place, even when we perhaps want it to be.
The setting of a book is always important, but this is one of those rare stories where the setting isn’t just where everything takes place; it’s a character in and of itself. The New York of this book is vibrant and seedy and so incredibly real, from the bright and glittery clubs to the rundown, faded glories of the past. The corner diners and giggling girls on the subway are every bit as important as Clary’s home, as the Institute, and it’s not just about atmosphere. This story- this precise story- couldn’t take place anywhere else. New York City, its strange mixture of shiny new structures of glass and metal and the crumbling edifices of previous centuries, the sheer weight of history and the stunning blend of all the differents kinds of people. In a way, that cross of cultures and time and even materials greatly signifies the position of the Shadowhunters.
As an organization, as a race of people, the Shadowhunters are an equally strange blend of cultures. They’re human, more or less, but their angelic origins lead them to look down on them greatly; when our trio of young Shadowhunters need to refer to Simon, they spend much of the book calling him “the mundane”. It’s partially arrogance and partially a feeling of genuine superiority. That they believe they’re better than the stupid, blind humans they protect is never a question; they never even stop to consider that there might be something to learn, or that there might be value in mundane culture. It’s partly an aspect of their training and isolation, but most pop culture references go straight over their heads- and they’re okay with that. They flicker through the mundane world, sometimes glamored to invisibility and sometimes not, but they have absolutely no desire to be a part of it. Their own traditions are firmly held and of long standing, and of course it’s the duty of the young to struggle against these and see how far they can push, but they have such a passion for even the thought of their home country of Idris (don’t look for it on a map- we mundanes don’t get to know of such a thing) that we can only marvel at the staunch sense of duty that keeps them scattered over the world to get rid of the demons and protect this world from the utter devestation that follows a true demon invasion.
The mythology of this world presents such an interesting balance of contradictions. There are angels and demons, vampires cannot say the name of God, and blessed weapons and holy water have a significant impact and yet…for most Shadowhunters, faith is more a type of history, a collection of myths that are actually truths. It’s not belief, it’s carefully pared down fact that separates itself entirely from the question of religion. When pushed about it, Jace gives Clary an answer that, while certainly colored by his own history, still seems indicative of the Shadowhunters as a whole: whatever may or may not be out there, the Shadowhunters are the only ones offering any protection. It’s not something that allows for much meditation on the nature of existence or faith, and because demons in some form appear in pretty much every major religion and a whole host of minor ones, there isn’t an easy answer, or even an easy way to approach the discussion. It’s a kind of absolutism, a dual knife of duty and arrogance that colors their entire outlook.
The characters are gorgeously, intricately drawn. Sometimes we see them most clearly within their relationships, but they’re so defined by that as well that it only illuminates, rather than substitutes. Perception is such a key piece here. Not just the way the people perceive themselves or the things/events around them, but also the way they’re perceived by others. There isn’t a single circumstance that can’t be taken in multiple ways, a breeding ground for moral grey areas that beautifully color everything that’s going on. As Hodge notes, the moral absolutism of the young is truly staggering, and too easy. Sometimes growing up means facing those knife-sharp layers of meaning, means accepting that the truth may not be so easily named or understood. Truth, as we generally understand it, may not even exist, lost within too many sides to the stories and hidden under the continuing manipulations.
Where we see the characters best, I think, is in contrast to each other. There are certain innate pairings- I don’t necessarily mean romantic, but simply foils- that bring out the most complicated picture, the deeper aspects that really make them stay with us.
Alec and Isabelle, as siblings and as friends of Jace, both have a number of similiarites, but the way they manifest or use these aspects is completely different. They’re both very physically attractive but Isabelle flaunts it. In everything she does, she has the expectation of being watched, and she acts up to that. Her personality is out there, right in your face and utterly unapologetic about the fact that she’s essentially, innately, a bitch. She’s proud of it. She’s kick ass, take no prisoners, not going to back down for anything. She’s snippy, but because she releases all those small digs, her overall temper is actually fairly even. Alec hides his attractiveness, with uneven haircuts and unflattering clothes, with a surly attitude that keeps him in the background. He doesn’t put himself forward; he stays to guard their backs, he’s careful. He’s also extremely intense, like a too-tightly coiled spring. When he explodes, he inflicts damage, not just on those around him but on himself as well. Where Isabelle is utterly confident, Alec tries too hard to appear that way, and rarely succeeds even when he tries to use his greater age as a way to appear superior.
Luke and Hodge form another such pairing. In some ways, they seem very similar: fairly mild-mannered, bookish men who turn out to have a great deal more to them. As children, as students, they were likely VERY similar. It’s the choices they’ve made as adults that have formed them into very different men, but the ways we can trace those choices, those circumstances and events, into each aspect of their characters…They both have a cautious respect for what they’re up against (or even up with). That respect is based out of intelligence- when you KNOW the threat, you acknowledge it. What sets them apart is the question of fear, of how they respond to their history, to what’s going on. In some ways, Hodge is still a child; Luke is a man who’s grown up in a very difficult way. They both bear the scars of their affections, but one has become crippled by them and the other uses them as impetus.
Of course, there can be no discussion of this book without talking about Clary and Jace. Both individually and as a reflective pair, they are strong, fascinating characters with spiderweb cracks of vulnerability. They both fiercely protect the things and people that they love, both need to, and they’re both a little oblivious when it comes to other people. They notice things when it affects other people, but not when it’s actually about them. A large part of that is coming to these new circumstances as outsiders- Clary will notice very different things about Alec and Isabelle than Jace will because he knows them too well, just as Jace will notice very different things about Simon. Clary has been raised with love, Jace to distrust it, but neither of them realizes how much strength can be found in it. Jace is used to being wounded, and there’s a very large part of him that expects to be if he doesn’t keep people at a distance and make a cocky, sarcastic, utterly self-impressed facade, he will get injured again/further. Clary’s never been punished for her feelings, so she has the luxury of being honest about them. She can react without having to stuff them within a mask first- with means there’s an impulse that blends, from different motivations, with Jace’s addiction to excitement. The fire between them, equal parts attraction, irritation, confusion, and protectiveness, captures us immediately.
And can I just say I love Clary’s last name? A fray is an older word for a struggle, usually disorderly and sprawling, a skirmish or episode within a larger fight. This very much defines Clary’s position within the story; she isn’t just the focal point, she is at times the impetus, the piece that causes things to happen.
Small details like that, along with a masterful use of foreshadowing in even the smallest ways, make this amazing to reread. As readers, we don’t tend to notice things like that the first time through. We register them subconsciously so that when we get to the all-important reveals, there’s a part of us that starts adding up all those hints and clues and wonders how we didn’t guess it sooner. Going back through and really noting those things though…it’s amazing writing. It brings together not just the pieces of this book but also the other books. The descriptions verge on sheer poetry sometimes, the images so strong and clear that it gives characters, settings, and events that sharper edge, that extra piece to being so real in our minds. These descriptions can sometimes be overused, and sometimes the contrasts- while amazing in their own right- can jar us from the narration to consider that contrast.
What I love most about this book is Clare’s brand of fearlessness. She doesn’t hesitate to put her characters into horrible, painful situations that they have to struggle through. Just as the Shadowhunters scar themselves with the Marks that aid their tasks, the scars abound from physical, mental, and emotional wounds. Characters are at their most interesting when they have the most to lose. They prove, over and over, that we hurt the ones we love, even more so we hurt the ones who love us, and yet, because of that love, we’ll do it again and again. It’s horrendous. It’s wonderful. And it so incredibly human. Clare isn’t afraid to explore the dark places, the places that can never do anything but wound, the places that breed some of the most beautiful things we could ever hope to see. As readers, that can occasionally be traumatizing, but it’s captivating too. We want to be hurt that way- because it means we can’t wait for the next installment. We have to know, because we want things to work out. It doesn’t have to be a Disney ending- you don’t go through what these people do without sacrifices and scars- but we want to believe that they’ll have something real to cling to that’s worth everything they have to survive.
This book is dark, but it’s gorgeous, and for most of us, we spend the entire book half-breathless with our fingers already under the next page so we don’t have to fumble when it’s time to turn it. City of Bones by Cassandra Clare, the first book of The Mortal Instruments.
Until next time~