Book Review: City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

Image courtesy of Simon & Schuster

(This article was featured in our print issue, which was published on Nov. 10, 2012.)

The cover image on City of Bones, the first book of the Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare, may be garish and fragmented, but it represents the problems of the story surprisingly well. The potential for character development is stunted so the characters can be witty or move with the demands of the plot. And a setting that should be dynamic and vibrant is forced to take a backseat to those poorly constructed inhabitants.

When 15 year-old Clary Fray witnesses a murder, by culprits invisible to everyone but her, she is plunged into a world that lurks behind the scenes of New York where demons, vampires, warlocks, and other fantastical creatures walk unseen. After her mother vanishes under mysterious circumstances, she has to navigate this world and its rules while making several unsettling discoveries about her past. There’s a love triangle, as there always has to be in any  Young Adult book published after Twilight, though there is a twist to the trope that would have more impact if it wasn’t undone in later books.

The most frustrating aspect of this book is the fact that Clary’s story isn’t very interesting compared to those of other characters in the books. As she travels throughout the supernatural underworld of Manhattan, there are paragraphs and paragraphs of exposition from other characters about events that took place some years before Clary was born. Aside from the damage to the story’s pace caused by these chunks of information, the reader is left wondering why the book isn’t about those events.

For example, Clary’s mother Jocelyn has an intriguing backstory that’s thrown at the reader right before the story’s climax. It’s safe to say that Jocelyn has suffered and lost more than her daughter ever does in City of Bones; she watches the man she loved grow bloodthirsty and ruthless due to extremism and pride, loses one of her children to her husband’s cruelty, and has to keep Clary safe from the forces that caused Jocelyn to lose everything in the first place.

This could have been a much more interesting book. But it is another story of a clueless and unlikeable teenager looking for a magical plot device, and trying to decide if she likes her best guy friend better than the hot bad boy that treats her badly.

As might be expected, everyone in City of Bones feels like a specific type, rather than a living, breathing human being. There’s Jace, the attractive dangerous love interest; Clary, the plucky heroine; Simon, the beleaguered best friend. All the teenagers speak in the same witty, genre-savvy tone. Most of the adult characters are afterthoughts or exist only to give exposition as required by the plot, which has some problems of its own.

City of Bones does deserve some credit in that there are traces of a plot and a sense of setting and history. But the execution is clumsy, with long chunks of exposition broken by action and wandering around the streets of Manhattan. The glimpses of otherworldly creatures and societies make it all the more frustrating that the novel never fully immerses itself in the world in which it takes place. Since the setting would ideally give a richer context to the story, the overall quality of the book suffers.

With a film adaption of the book set to hit theaters in the summer of 2013, it’s hard to say if the story will be improved by moving to the big screen. The dialogue may sound more natural spoken than it appears on the page, but the problems with characters and story will remain unless the writers do something drastic with the script. And with such uneven source material to work with, it will be hard to make the story more than what it is: a jumbled imitation of better tropes and concepts.

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