Oh snap it’s Quick Read-o-clock
We’re t-minus a few days until the start of October, which means the return of our annual Spooktober celebrations. Now, last year was kind of a dud because I was busy
and left everything until the last minute, but this year I’ve been making plans and generating seasonal pumpkin-flavoured content well in advance, so there’ll be a pretty hefty number of posts spread out over the month.
The side-effect of this is that regular Let’s Reads will cease during October while I polish off the Spooktober posts. But! Before all that starts, I decided that now might be a good time to get a long-gestating Quick Read out of the way: Cassandra Claire’s 2007 debut, City of Bones.
Why choose this particular book? Well, for one I already have a bit of a history with the franchise and Claire as an author. Secondly, I recently had a gander at the new Shadowhunters TV series on Netflix and discovered to my delight that it’s the precise level of awful that makes for a really fun, trashy watch– the sort of thing that’s good to have on in the background while you eat bad Chinese take-away (you may not be able to tell, but I have very sophisticated hobbies). That got me in the mood to go back to the original source material, and now here we are.
First, a bit of background.
Cassandra Claire came from the Harry Potter fanfic scene, and I’ve been told that this series (particularly the first three books) are based to some extent on a well-known Draco Malfoy-centric fanfic she did back in the day. For this reason she’s often credited(/blamed) with setting the precedent for E.L. James converting a Twilight fanfic into Fifty Shades of Grey, although the two situations aren’t all that similar beyond a surface level.
From what I understand, the fanfic precedent for Fifty Shades was basically an original story whose characters happened to share names and vague personality traits with the Twilight protagonists, whereas the Draco Trilogy (which was scrubbed from its original channels after a plagiarism scandal, although apparently it’s still available elsewhere if you’re curious) was a straightforward Harry Potter fanfic, using all of Rowling’s established characters and setting details. Therefore, it needed a lot more re-writing and re-versioning in the transition to an original story, necessitating the invention of an all-new setting and story. Whether or not she was in fact successful at this is highly debatable, as many people (including myself) have pointed out that the remnants of the story’s fanfic origins are very obvious beneath the thin wallpapering of Claire’s efforts at a new story.
But all that aside, the book has to stand on its own. We’re going to get to that in a moment, after I complain about the original cover, which was annoyed the piss out of me since the day it first came out.
Why is it covered in garish photoshop effects? What are those streaks of light coming out of Random Shirtless Guy’s chest? Are they supposed to be wings? And why, oh fucking why, is “Book One” in a hideous red oval that doesn’t match anything else on the cover? This might seriously be one of the worst professionally-made book covers I’ve ever seen, and that’s including bullshit like this.
Also the quote from Holly Black makes a lot more sense when you know that eight years later they’d be collaborating on a new series.
Once you stop clawing your eyes out from the Lovecraftian existential revulsion caused by looking at the cover, you find a quote that tells you where the title of the trilogy came from:
I have not slept.
Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasm, or a hideous dream:
The Genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council; and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.
—William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Every time I see stuff like this I assume the author is aping Phillip Pullman, who got the title for His Dark Materials from Paradise Lost, although maybe authors of older-skewing children’s and YA fiction have been doing that since forever and I’m just not aware of it.
Following the quote we come to the table of contents, which kind of blew my mind so I need to talk to about it.
Actually before that: why do novels have tables of contents, anyway? Does anyone ever stop reading and then remember what chapter they were on instead of using a bookmark or folding the corner of the page down? Do people randomly decide to re-read a particular chapter in the middle of their favourite book from time to time?
Anyway, the chapter titles. The book is split into three parts, which are called “Dark Descent”, “Easy is the Descent” and “The Descent Beckons”, and the book is topped off by an epilogue called (I’m not making this up) “The Ascent Beckons”. As soon as I saw those titles I knew they had to also be references to something, so imagine my delight when I discovered that they’re all references from different sources: the second one is a slight alteration on a line from the Aeneid, the third and the epilogue name are from a William Carlos Williams poem and we’ll discover the mysterious origins of the first one shortly.
The word “pretentious” gets misused a lot and seems to be in the late stages of being ejected entirely from the sphere of acceptable language in criticism, but I’m going to argue forcefully that it still deserves a place at the table for very specific circumstances, and a debut author of pulpy YA urban fantasy mining multiple separate intellectual-sounding sources for phrases that happen to include the word “descent” is surely one of them.
Anyway, onto chapter one, where–
I sung of Chaos and Eternal Night,
Taught by the heav’nly Muse to venture down
The dark descent, and up to reascend…
—John Milton, Paradise Lost
Oh my god are you joking
Chapter 1: Pandemonium
We open with a bunch of radical teens waiting in line to get into an all-ages nightclub called Pandemonium (pfft).
Fifteen-year-old Clary Fray, standing in line with her best friend, Simon, leaned forward along with everyone else, hoping for some excitement.
BEEP BEEP BEEP the main character’s name is suspiciously similar to the author’s pen-name, the fanfic buzzer has activated
Cassandra Claire Clary and her friend watch as a bouncer interrogates a fellow teen carrying a rubber stake, which he’s apparently carrying because he’s cosplaying as a vampire hunter for some reason.
He had electric blue dyed hair that stuck up around his head like the tendrils of a startled octopus,
This phrase, along with another bit of description from later in the chapter, became somewhat infamous among the Livejournals and the Bloggers of the day (if Twitter had existed back then, we’d probably be seeing Harambe memes about it even now). For the longest time it was literally the only thing I knew about the book.
but no elaborate facial tattoos or big metal bars through his ears or lips.
Is it common for fifteen year olds in the US to have face tattoos or extreme piercing jobs? Whenever I see stuff like this I assume the characters were originally older before being aged down to fit a new target market.
The boy’s wide eyes were way too bright a green, Clary noticed: the color of antifreeze,
This was the other bit everyone was lulzing over.
The boy slid past him, quick as an eel. Clary liked the lilt to his shoulders, the way he tossed his hair as he went. There was a word for him that her mother would have used—insouciant.
I’ve literally never heard of that word before, but I’ll assume your mom is on to something, Clary.
Colored lights played over the dance floor, turning it into a multicolored fairyland of blues and acid greens, hot pinks and golds.
The writing actually seems okay when Claire isn’t using weird descriptions or breaking out the thesaurus. I quite like this bit.
We switch perspectives to the dude with the rubber stake and learn that he’s actually some sort of supernatural something who’s out hunting for
His lip curled. They didn’t know how lucky they were. They didn’t know what it was like to eke out life in a dead world, where the sun hung limp in the sky like a burned cinder.
How did these unused Linkin Park lyrics get into the book?
A totally hot girl starts walking toward startled octopus guy which leads to this authorial trainwreck:
She was beautiful, for a human—long hair nearly the precise color of black ink,
Nearly the precise colour of black ink. Nearly the precise colour of blank ink. Jesus Christ.
Just in case anyone thinks I’m over-reacting, let’s re-write the sentence very slightly and see how much less clunky it sounds:
She was beautiful for a human, with long hair the colour of ink,
I’m still not wild on “the colour of ink”– honestly, I’d have just said “long black hair” and called it a day– but I feel like this is way less clunky.
Octopus Guy and Ink Girl slip into the back for some sexing (which will become murdering when Octopus Guy kills her and drains her life essence or whatever), but it turns out she’s actually a badass demon-hunter, and she’s got a posse with her.
They were dancing, or what passed for it—a lot of swaying back and forth with occasional lunges toward the floor as if one of them had dropped a contact lens—in a space between a group of teenage boys in metallic corsets,
The fuck kind of all-ages nightclub is this.
He looked less as if he were contemplating the powers of darkness and more as if he were on his way to chess club.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that Claire hadn’t spent a lot of time in nightclubs when she wrote this.
Clary slowed her dancing and stared. She could just make out that the shapes were boys, tall and wearing black clothes. She couldn’t have said how she knew that they were following the other boy, but she did. She could see it in the way they paced him, their careful watchfulness, the slinking grace of their movements.
“She couldn’t tell how she knew they were following him.”
*Explains how she knew they were following him*
Clary sees one of the guys following the octopus guy following the woman whose hair is almost precisely the colour of black ink pulling out a knife and tries to alert Simon, but he can’t see them for some reason.
So of course, she follows the guys following the other guy following the girl and witnesses them busting out sick anime moves and interrogating the octopus demon dude about vague backstory nonsense.
The blue-haired boy could feel blood welling up under the too-tight metal, making his wrists slippery.
Since this is written from his perspective we should really find out what his name is, unless he thinks of himself as “the blue haired boy.”
“Demons,” drawled the blond boy, tracing the word on the air with his finger. “Religiously defined as hell’s denizens, the servants of Satan, but understood here, for the purposes of the Clave, to be any malevolent spirit whose origin is outside our own home dimension—”
“That’s enough, Jace,” said the girl.
“Isabelle’s right,” agreed the taller boy. “Nobody here needs a lesson in semantics—or demonology.”
I’m going to hate all of these characters, aren’t I.
The blue-haired boy didn’t reply. His mouth was still working. “I could give you information,” he said. “I know where Valentine is.”
Jace glanced back at Alec, who shrugged. “Valentine’s in the ground,” Jace said. “The thing’s just toying with us.”
Isabelle tossed her hair. “Kill it, Jace,” she said. “It’s not going to tell us anything.”
Jace raised his hand, and Clary saw dim light spark off the knife he was holding. It was oddly translucent, the blade clear as crystal, sharp as a shard of glass, the hilt set with red stones.
The bound boy gasped. “Valentine is back!” he protested, dragging at the bonds that held his hands behind his back. “All the Infernal Worlds know it—I know it—I can tell you where he is—”
Oh wow Valentine huh? I don’t know who the fuck that is or why it matters. This is why you don’t start your book with vague mysterious plot-hints.
Rage flared suddenly in Jace’s icy eyes. “By the Angel, every time we capture one of you bastards, you claim you know where Valentine is.
What does he mean “every time”? Has this happened before? Are demons regularly insisting that no seriously, Valentine is totally way alive, and they just go “Pfft no way gonna kill you now” every single time?
I think this is meant to make them come across as arrogant and conceited, but it just makes them seem incredibly stupid instead.
Well, we know where he is too. He’s in hell. And you—” Jace turned the knife in his grasp, the edge sparking like a line of fire. “You can join him there.”
ICE TO SEE YOU
“It’s a girl,” Jace said, recovering his composure. “Surely you’ve seen girls before, Alec. Your sister Isabelle is one.” He took a step closer to Clary, squinting as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing. “A mundie girl,” he said, half to himself. “And she can see us.”
“Of course I can see you,” Clary said. “I’m not blind, you know.”
“Oh, but you are,” said Jace, bending to pick up his knife. “You just don’t know it.”
Jace is the romantic lead, by the way. What a catch.
Jace seemed to snarl.
How does someone “seem” to snarl? Did he snarl, or not? Did he make an expression that’s kind of like a snarl but not quite? What is going on here?
“The police aren’t usually interested unless you can produce a body,” said Jace.
That’s not even remotely true.
The Asshole Squad (apparently there’s three of them, but I don’t think one of them has actually spoken yet) spend more time taunting Clary and generally doing a very good impression of being the villains of the story, although Jace balks at killing her when Isabelle seems to be hinting at it and instead insists that they let her go (because he wuvs her already, presumably).
Simon and the bouncer arrive and of course can’t see Jace and co, so Clary pretends that she just imagined the whole thing. Afterwards there’s some limp romantic drama or whatever, but let’s skip it.
So that’s the first chapter of City of Bones. It’s… hard to describe.
The writing isn’t so much bad as extremely odd– it’s decent when Claire isn’t using bizarre descriptions or awkward phrasing– and the characterization of the Shadowhunters would be highly effective if they were meant to be the asshole villains and not the people the main character is soon going to be joining.
In terms of “inspiration”, at this stage it’s reminding me a whole hell of a lot of Buffy The Vampire Slayer rather than Harry Potter, including cringe-inducing Joss Whedon Quip Dialogue (I don’t think Jace has a single line that I didn’t read in a smarmy wise-ass voice).