Book Review: City of Ashes, by Cassandra Clare

April 18, 2011 at 9:00 am (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

Note: This is the second book for the Mortal Instruments series- if you have not read the first one yet, there will be spoilers below

So, previously, in City of Bones: Clary Fray, having very recently discovered that she is a Shadowhunter (a race of part angel part humans bound to protect mankind from demonic invasion) and that everything her mother ever told her of family is a lie, has rescued her kidnapped mother at a high cost: her mother is still comatose, the father she thought was dead is actually alive and a Really Bad Guy, and the infuriatingly arrogant, vulnerable, hot boy whose kisses light her on fire…is her brother. For Clary Fray, life pretty much sucks right now, and it’s only going to get worse as the Clave tries to hunt down Valentine.

And again we’re thrust directly into the action. Long before the Shadowhunters know that Valentine is up to something, we readers know. We don’t know why, or what he’s going to accomplish with it, but within the first few pages we know he’s controlling demons, killing Downworlders, and Has A Plan. Bad Guys with Plans are always a little terrifying. It’s almost a teaser, being given this short view into what Valentine’s doing, but it’s not a false start- knowing that he’s a continued threat is what drives the true opening, by hurtling Jace into a place designed to make him hurt and react.

Perception is really at the core of this book, perhaps of the entire series. The way we perceive ourselves, the way we perceive others- and the way they perceive us. We see what we choose to see. It can blind us to the truth, it can make us grievously hurt the ones we love, because we can’t see the whole picture. The revelation of Jace as Valentine’s son causes even the people who know and love him, the people who call him family, to suddenly view him as Valentine’s arrow, a weapon and a trap rather than a young man who belongs with them, and in the name of protecting themselves, some truly terrible things are allowed to happen.

It’s interesting to me that through the entire book, everyone remarks on how much Clary looks like her mother and how much Jace acts like his father. Through that, each is seen as an equal extension of the parent in question, and also highlights how little we know of Jocelyn. We know that she and Clary look alike, and we hear a lot about her from the people who knew her way back when, but we don’t really know her to determine if she and Clary share a lot of the same active characteristics. Valentine, on the other hand, shares his attitude with everyone, and by clearly seeing that influence on Jace, how Jace’s personality has been shaped by that outlook, we get a much better understanding of Jace beyond the cocky exterior.

The relationship between Jace and Valentine is gorgeously drawn, taut and fraught with contradictions, an extremely delicate balance of devotion and abuse. The conflicts build immediately off of other conflicts, and nothing about it is easy. Nothing about it should be easy. However dark and twisty he may be, Valentine has a real affection for his son, a love that is returned, and there’s something a little unnatural about standing on the opposite side of the war from a family member. There’s a choice that has to be made between what you love and what you believe is right, and that choice is heartbreaking.

I am so glad we get to see more of Magnus. He’s as perverse and enigmatic as a cat, but if you look beyond the glitter and the flamboyant clothing and the apparent lack of concern for anything beyond himself, there’s a lot of wisdom to be found. IF you pay attention. He gives these pearls in the quiet moments, the tense heartbeat right before someone hurtles his/herself into action, the moments that are easy to overlook. He understands people very well (well, he should, given how much experience he’s had with them), and as old as he is, as much as he’s seen, it must be tempting to disconnect, to pull away from the mortal world to prevent forming attachments that can only hurt as the other person grows old and dies and he doesn’t. And yet, he keeps doing it, which speaks a lot to what’s going on under all the glitter. He’s remarkably patient with Alec’s fears and hesitations, even when he’s clearly hurt by it, because he knows the value of love, knows that it’s worth waiting for through the bumps and obstacles along the way. I don’t know that he’s my favorite character, but he’s certainly one of the most fascinating.

The fight scenes are unbelievably well written, with that barely contained frenzy of too much going on all at once all around you, but we’re still able to focus. It’s smooth and transitions well, but keeps our pulses pounding. The rhthym flows well through the natural lulls where characters can swiftly exchange necessary information and check on each other back into the stabby-stabby. This mirrors the skill with which the perspective shifts are done. It’s an easy trap, I think, to get bogged down in those shifts, to give in to the temptation to use another character to rehash what we’ve just seen, but Clare always keeps the action moving forward. We see a great deal more of what’s going on, especially when there are multiple catastrophes happening around the city, but it never feels like cheating. Those switches, sitting behind someone else’s eyes for bit, also gives us so much more about the characters. Each character interprets the others in different ways, and that’s lovely to see.

I love that Clary doesn’t instantly have these amazing Shadowhunter skills. Does she have her moments of kick-ass? ABSOLUTELY. But she’s not suddenly as talented as- say- Isabelle. She has natural gifts, but there’s also the clear fact that she’s going to have to learn how to use them, that she’s going to have to train to have any aptitude beyond a certain amount of luck. By making her weak, it actually makes her stronger, because it makes her more real, gives her things she has to do and overcome. However much she questions it, Clary is really growing into herself- even as Jace is more and more doubting who and what he is. Their relationship doesn’t alter just from finding out that they’re brother and sister- though it has to- but because the footing is changing. In the first book, Clary was someone who very much needed to be protected, because there was a high chance she’d trip over a shoelace and fall on a sword. Jace cast himself as her protector, a clearly defined role. But here, things are changing. Clary still needs protection but she can also help protect others, and Jace isn’t sure he has that ability anymore.

Of course, we can’t really talk about this book without talking about Simon. In many ways, he’s still very much Clary’s (and by extension, the Shadowhunters’) kicked puppy. He tags along, gets hurt, goes away, and always comes back. Love and loyalty, yes, but there’s also a part of him that doesn’t know any place else to be than by Clary’s side. We see flashes of potential in him, a way for him to grow, but he’s not there yet. Right now he’s not even the sidekick, he’s the tagalong (no, not the Girl Scout Cookie). (Yum, Girl Scout cookies…) What happens to him is going to force him to grow, force him to make some hard decisions, especially knowing that he is pretty much always going to be as he is. And- however much Clary might grow and learn and change, she’s still going to be pretty much as she is now as well. He makes a start of looking at some hard truths- I’m looking forward to seeing him have to face the rest of those truths in future books.

There is so much I love about this book, especially little things. I love the almost slapstick mania in the Seelie Court; it’s funny as anything and then suddenly we get this knife-sharp pain, and the contrast is just lovely. I actually really love the Inquisitor. She’s clearly unhinged but the more we learn about her, the more we understand her, the more we actually feel sorry for her. She does terrible, thoughtless things and blurs the line between hard law and personal vendetta until it’s all but meaningless and yet…we still have sympathy for her, which is just astounding writing on Clare’s part. Valentine, too, exhibits this trait- he has a talent for spinning things in such a way that we actually want to believe him. He just sounds so reasonable. We don’t forget that he’s murdering children or summoning demons or intends to do all these horrible things in the name of creating his little happy place kind of world, but he actually makes it sound logical, like it’s genuinely the best overall way.

Middle books of trilogies (as this was originally intended to be) often fall prey to being placeholders. They exist to bridge the first and third books but that’s about it. This one doesn’t fall prey to anything. It constantly stokes the action- and the stakes- higher and higher. Clare still isn’t scared to wound her characters horribly, isn’t afraid to shove them into the dark places and let them struggle to find a way out- or to see if other’s will climb in there to rescue them. There’s a kind of breathless excitement about what’s going on that makes it hard to put down, and you never pull away to think “okay, this is the middle book”. You just want to KEEP GOING. I absolutely loved this book, loved the pain and anguish and oh-so-fragile hope that we get to see, and can’t wait for more.

Until next time~

1 Comment

  1. peacockeyeri said,

    Your review is just amazing… O.O you managed to cover practically every aspect of the book…!
    Ever considered writing as a profession?

    Oh and you should try the other series The Infernal Devices before reading the City of Fallen Angels :).. although you still have to read City of Glass… lol ^^

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