Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series, currently on its 5th book City of Lost Souls (2012, Margaret K. McElderry), is such a strange series. And, it’s especially odd that I can’t really discuss why without some spoilers. At its core, it’s an action sci-fi story with a religious core. Although, its heavy mysticism somewhat negates the more Biblical aspects of the story. But, like all YA it’s really the story of teenagers doing extraordinary things while toying with the type of desperate, intense emotions that no one over the age of 20 really ever feels. From here on, spoilers both major and minor from book 5 and the rest of the series.
Near the end of the first book in the series (City of Bones), our heroine Clary Fray, has her whole world turned upside down. After she finds out that she was born into a secret organization of demon hunting, angel blessed, superfighters called Shadowhunters . She then
finds that that her presumed dead father is the Hitler of this world AND that the love of her life, fellow Shadowhunter Jace who brought her into this world, is actually her brother. A lot for a girl to process. During the next two books (City of Ashes and City of Glass), Jace and Clary spend most of their time gazing moonily at each other while simultaneously agonizing, in a strangely non-agonizing way, over their incestuous lust. It’s…pretty upsetting. And it’s constant. And every other character in the story is equally put off, by it and sad for their forbidden love. However, inevitably, this ugly twist that has provided hundreds of pages of squicky brooding is happily reversed and Jace an Clary give in to to their non-forbidden lust in a YA way.
Book 4 (City of Fallen Angels) takes the story in a new direction as it shifts the focus to more of the cast, and it really opens the world. No longer are we stuck in Clary’s head with her dramas and insecurities. This story focuses mostly on new vampire Simon, Clary’s best friend. In my opinion, this is the strongest of the series from both a world building and character building standpoint. It also features the strongest emotional story, no longer being burdened with the bothersome nastiness of the past.
Which bring us, at last, to City of Lost Souls. Our new big bad, Clary’s actual brother Sebastian, oozes with evil. And sisterly love. Yes that’s right, the incest storyline comes back with a vengeance as Sebastian opines for PAGES over why he would be/should be Clary’s one true love. For her part Clary is revolted, but not because of the incest, but because Sebastian is evil and she loves Jace. As we know, Clary isn’t totally opposed to a little brother lovin’. The rest of the story is standard mid-trilogy fare of stakes heightening and drama. And, it’s fine, if boring. But, once this happily forgotten plot point comes back to play, the book is plunged into a deep morass of unreadability. I found myself slogging towards the end. It turns what would have been an interesting, somewhat compelling Act II (if only for the character development offered to most of the rest of the cast) into the literary equivalent of a dental visit.
And now, 5 books into a series that I’ve been hot-well lukewarm- and cold on, I come to the point where I have to wonder if I will even read the 6th book (to be titled City of Heavenly Fire) completionism be damned. Why is Cassandra Clare pushing this incest thing? It’s stated in the book that there is a Biblical/historical basis for the idea of siblings being romantically entwined. And, while that’s true, there’s simply no reason for these plots. Clary and Jace could have been driven apart for so many other’s reasons- unrequited love is not new nor does it have to involve such a stomach churning idea- especially as the characters were never really romantically torn asunder by their situation as it’s played as more of a mild inconvenience to their love rather than a serious roadblock. And to bring it back? Why?! Sebastian was evil enough as it was, his dire actions being set up in book 3 and his plan being unfurled in book 5 was more than enough to prove to the reader that he was irredeemably evil. Throwing in a sexual attraction his sister would normally be over the top despicable/revolting but as we’ve seen in this series that’s not really a huge issue for anyone, especially as Sebastian justifies his lust in the text and Clary is sort only repulsed in that she loves Jace and Sebastian is evil, the rest is only tangentially addressed.
I’m not sure what Clare’s game is here. I don’t get why she’s so obsessed with this idea (how it will be handled in the movie they’re shooting based on book 1 is a whole other kettle of fish). I also don’t know if this…theme?…carries over to the Mortal Instruments’ prequel series, The Infernal Devices, or the forthcoming sequel series The Dark Artifices as I haven’t read/don’t know if I will read them. The series as a whole has some interesting ideas, some nice takes on old mythologies and some interesting characters (Vampire Simon and immortal Warlock Magnus particularly) as well as a very frank and generally very real take on teens drinking, promiscuity, and homosexuality. All of these things I applaud. But the repeated use of such a disturbing and unnecessary romantic…”entanglement” is upsetting to the reader. And not in an intriguing way, in an I want-to-throw-this-book-in-a-fire way. City of Lost Souls D+, The Mortal Instruments Series C-