The big problem with City of Bones is primarily lazy writing and bad characterization. There are so many things in this book that are not explained well, or at all, because it feels like the author didn’t want to put in the time and effort to come up with an explanation. So we have enchanted motorcycles that run on “demon energies,” but all we know is that some fly, and they break apart to ash in sunlight. We know there are portals that allow for instantaneous travel to anywhere in the world, but not at all how they work (even if they follow any theoretical laws of physics, or if they are pure magic, or what)—A Wrinkle in Time and Doctor Who both take on this subject admirably. And we get clichéd tropes as characters, instead of likeable, relatable people.
Let me go point by point to keep things clear and organized.
We get a whole chapter from Luke’s perspective telling the story about how Clary’s parents and the Circle really happened. Rather than Clary exploring an old journal, and piecing it together with snippets of what she hears from a handful of other people—Luke, her mother, Hodge, Jace, Isabelle, the Silent Brothers—we just get a long narration. We aren’t given a chance, as readers, to engage. Luke sits us down and spells it all out for us; there’s no real chance for moral ambiguity with any of these characters, because Hodge and Luke just make everything black and white with their long tirades. I would rather have more mystery surrounding the situation and want to find out more in the following books by getting to piece together clues and bits of evidence that Clary finds in old records and secrets and rumors than the hamfisted explanation that Luke gives us. That’s incredibly lazy, and it’s incredibly boring to read.
That’s also why it came as a surprise to approximately no one that Valentine was Clary’s father and Jocelyn’s husband. The hints and clues were so hamfisted they might as well have just come out and said it from the beginning. Maybe that’s why Clare didn’t try to reveal a mystery with the Circle; instead, she filled pages with awkward relationship-building with Jace.
There are also some incredibly awkward similes and phrases in this book. For example:
The steps creaked and groaned as they ascended, like an old woman complaining about her aches and pains. (pg 775)
Clary was gasping, her breath sawing painfully in her lungs,… (pg 777-8)
She wished, irrelevantly, that it would rain. Rain would burst this heat bubble like a pricked blister. (pg 780-1)
Jace’s smile was as bland as buttered toast. (pg 863)
“I know that you are, but you’re still a child, or nearly one.” (pg 427)
They were holding hands like Hansel and Gretel in the dark forest. (pg 441)
His arm was lightly muscled and downed with golden hairs fine as pollen. (pg 496)
The caffeine in her veins fizzed like carbonated water… (pg 542)
These are just some of the ones I’ve been posting about in my other entries. These might seem nitpicky, but choosing the wrong phrase or word can tear a reader out of the flow of the story. Word choice is incredibly important, and I think when an author is crafting a comparative phrase, it gets even more crucial. The point of a simile is usually to associate something that might be unknown or that might have very general connotations with something specific, to create a particular image for the reader. If you choose the wrong thing, however, you run the risk of creating something absurd, rather than poetic or profound. Such as comparing the moon to a locket.
I understand what Clare was going for here. But think about what makes a locket a locket; they’re specifically pendants that open up so that you can put small photos or maybe locks of hair inside of them; they’re also frequently heart-shaped. When I first read this, I pictured a gold heart-shaped moon cracked open to showcase the photos inside. Instead, saying that the moon hung over the city like a silver pendant or medallion—that would have gotten across the image of a large, brightly glowing moon. That would have kept the flow of the narrative going, without jarring me out of the story because I’m faced with an awkward image of a cracked-locket moon.
And when Clare compared Jace’s smile to buttered toast in its blandness, I outright didn’t understand. Buttered toast isn’t really bland to me; it’s buttery. I mean, yes, that’s still a bland food, in that it’s fine for upset tummies, but honestly, why is that the comparison she chose? When I think of bland smiles (what even does that mean, actually?), I wouldn’t think of buttered toast. I wouldn’t compare a smile to any kind of food, I don’t think. “His smile was as spicy as Jalapeño peppers.” It just sounds ridiculous. It’s grating. I spend more time trying to figure out what the author was going for by comparing Jace’s smile to toast than I spend absorbing the emotion of the scene; I’m supposed to be heartbroken for Simon and Clary, but instead, I’m just wondering if Jace’s teeth are buttery and his lips flaking like they’re full of crumbs. If you’re comparing two things, you’re comparing them. You’re saying they have some features in common; even if we accept that buttered toast might be bland, that’s an incredibly shallow comparison to be making, and it does nothing to help set the mood. “His smile was as bland as a gloomy winter morning.” That makes sense to me, because that actually does its part to add to the narration.
When you write, you have to choose words carefully. If you can’t make your words work for you, they need to leave.
Again, for this, I’m going to have to break it down by characters. To save myself time and sanity, I’ll focus on Clary, Jace, Isabelle, and Simon. Everyone else was so insignificant that I don’t have impressions of them. (Except Magnus, who was just a pretentious ass. So there.)
Here’s what I think I was supposed to believe about Jace. Jace’s father was harsh and controlling, which had a negative effect on his psychology. He was taught—as he explained from the story with the hawk—that allowing others in leads only to pain and suffering, or to death. So he began to shut down, using humor as a shield to hide behind. He is so far caught up in protecting himself that he will not hesitate to hurt others in the short term to keep himself safe in the long term.
Here’s what I actually feel about Jace. Jace is a pretentious asshole caught up in his own sense of self-importance and wittiness. He’s unlikeable. He’s unsympathetic. He waves around his cleverness like he just wants people to fall to his feet and call him clever. For example:
Jace succumbed. “All right. As long as it isn’t Earl Grey,” he added, winkling his fine-boned nose. “I hate bergamot.” (pg 279)
What the fuck is bergamot. I googled, and I discovered that “bergamot” is referring to the Bergamot Orange, which is, according to Wikipedia, most commonly known for its distinct flavor in Earl Grey tea. However, when I see Jace saying “I hate bergamot” rather than “I don’t like Earl Grey,” I see an opportunity to strut his stuff and show off this tidbit of unnecessary information. It would be JUST as effective to say he doesn’t like that particular flavor of tea, as it was to say he doesn’t like one of the ingredients in that particular flavor of tea. It’s unnecessary and jarring. I had to look up bergamot; maybe other readers are more familiar with tea and wouldn’t have to go out of their way.
The point of this line, however, was to set up some of Jace’s characterization. He doesn’t say “I don’t like Earl Grey” because Clare wants to set up his intelligence and his familiarity with lesser known facts. Earl Grey to me is already kind of a hoity toity tea; I associate it with sitting down to tea in a London flat for a serious conversation, not for eating with cucumber sandwiches. That might be a little nitpicky, but the point stands. Even Clary points out that he is the only guy she’s ever met who even knows what bergamot is. Clare is setting Jace up as the higher being with his worldliness and maturity. I get the same feeling from the scene in the carriage when he quotes Blake at Clary, but then doesn’t recognize The Doors. It feels like those pretentious English majors who tote out their collection of the classics, but then wave away any popular modern lit, or poo poo the whole genre of rap because it has no meaning.
Granted, The Doors are counted among the rock classics, but it still creates that background of Jace being wordly and educated, but oh, he’s disconnected from the musical greats, like that negates his distaste for bergamot and his ability to quote classic poets.
All of Jace’s defensive humor feels completely and utterly forced. His quips are supposed to feel like he’s quick and needs to deflect all negative emotions away from himself. But in doing so, he comes up with incredibly awkward, unnecessary comments. I’ve had friends like this. They’re not charming or amusing, they’re annoying assholes. “And my hair is naturally blond,” said Jace. “Just for the record.” (pg 322) Jace is saying this in response to Simon having negative feelings, for pretty legitimate reasons! But instead of feeling like I should feel sympathy for Jace, I feel annoyed and roll my eyes out of my skull. Here’s another example: “No, I’m Jace,” said Jace patiently. “Simon is the weaselly little one with the bad haircut and dismal fashion sense.” (pg 464) I cannot feel sympathy for Jace as a character, because he’s pushing me, the reader, away.
One of the difficult things about writing a prickly character is having them push away the other characters, but still making the reader like them. This is a failed attempt; Jace doesn’t push away the other characters, but he does push ME away. The narrative doesn’t address Jace’s faults nearly enough. It presents his bad behavior with no commentary; I think Clary spends two scenes (and possibly a spare line or two) thinking about how Jace has had a hard upbringing, and that has created an impenetrable shell, but no one confronts him about it. The other characters just accept that this is Jace, without telling him to stop being an asshole. Clary only does so when it’s convenient for the plot, when the tension of the love triangle comes to a head. And that’s not a good enough reason, in my eyes, to confront Jace with what a snide dickbag he is. He insults and abuses the other characters, belittling them left and right, but no one tells him that’s not appropriate. He is given free reign to act this way because he had a hard life.
Jace is constantly insulting Simon, refusing to call him by his name, saying he’ll be too busy drooling over Isabelle to accomplish anything but getting in the way, and celebrating his transformation into a rat. He is incredibly shitty to Isabelle, reducing her to a femme fatale, who will just as easily crush your balls with her high-heeled boots as slay a demon. He doesn’t really seem to care about Alec at all, until it’s convenient for the plot, to throw in another awkwardly sudden relationship possibility. He’s disrespectful to Hodge (“I wasn’t planning to,” Jace said. “I can’t shrug anything off. My shoulder’s dislocated.” (pg 802)) when they’re in some serious shit. I should see all of this as a reason to pity him. He’s so incapable of dealing with his feelings that he’s even making snide comments when he and his friends could have died! No. This is a serious, serious character flaw, but he does not grow at all. He doesn’t learn, through the course of the novel, to move past it, and begin trying to open up and deal with his feelings, instead of deflecting with forced humor (which isn’t even funny!).
I didn’t like Clary, either. She has minimal growth through the novel. She gains some maturity and independence, and learns how to appreciate her mother, and how to stand up for herself. But any other changes in her life are basically handed out to her, or they’re just her reacting to changes in her scenery. She only has one real moment of leading, and that’s when she makes Jace agree to save Simon from the vampires. The rest of the novel, she’s basically going with the flow. If there were any other situations, I can’t recall them, so they must not have made a very great impression. And I’m not counting her deciding to let the Silent Brothers into her mind to figure out the history behind her mind block, since she goes on to compare it to rape, which made me want to tear her face off. I’m sure you know exactly what rape is like to make that comparison, coddled fifteen-year-old girl!
Clary also has a case of the pretensions, just like Jace. She recognizes bergamot when he mentions it (going so far as to praise him for being knowledgeable like she is), she recognizes Blake when he quotes it at her, and she has a peculiar vocabulary that seems stiff and unnatural. Some of the others have this as well, so it doesn’t just come off as Clary being particularly engrossed in books, but also in Clare not knowing how to write dialog for teenagers. I think this in particular is supposed to set Clary aside from Simon; he’s a Mundane. She is not. She fits in better with Jace (her secret brother) and the Shadowhunters, because they sound like they fell out of a snooty private school together. It doesn’t feel natural when she speaks. It feels like she’s putting on an air of superiority, even in her internal narration. I’m currently writing a character who IS stuck in snooty books all the time, and does have a more snooty vocabulary because of it, but I’m making points of having others question this, and having others speak differently than her. No one asks Clary about her weird way of speaking, of the quirks or her knowledge of bergamot. They all just accept it, which says that I, the reader, am also supposed to just accept it. Just like I’m supposed to just accept what a dingus Jace is.
Overall, however, she’s a boring and generic character. The only thing that’s different between Clary and, for example, Bella Swan, is that Clary likes anime and can draw. She is incredibly bland. She doesn’t have strong opinions or values on things. She doesn’t break from the trope of “insecure teenage girl hates all other girls,” which really grates on my nerves. She’s oblivious. The only things to distinguish her from thousands of other young female characters are her annoying displays of knowledge of unimportant things (again, bergamot. I can’t get over bergamot.)
Her narration is also rife with unnecessary information. This ties back in with Clare’s lazy/bad writing; Clare has Clary commenting on what nail polish other characters are wearing, or wishing that rain would come burst the heat wave like a blister, and how jealous she gets at Jace’s ability to raise his eyebrow when she can’t. That lowers the quality of the writing overall, but it also really makes me less inclined to enjoy my time with Clary. Clary’s job in this novel is to relate information back to the reader, but when she lingers on unimportant and insignificant details that add nothing to the plot or development of others, it’s wasting my time. Instead of getting to flow with the plot, I hear about Isabelle’s pink toenails (which are very tasteful, according to Clary), and how jealous Clary is of Isabelle’s lithe legs. More on this attitude later.
I started off really liking Simon! He had his moments of being a dingus (“Filters are for cigarettes and coffee,” Simon muttered… (pg 369)), and he sometimes channels the same stuffy know-it-all attitude that Clary and Jace share, but he was overall a really nice guy. He obviously cared about Clary outside of just crushing on her; he was concerned when she disappeared from Pandemonium after saying she had seen a knife (he WENT to Pandemonium in the first place, despite hating it), and he felt really out of place and like he was being replaced with the new friends Clary found in the Institute. He got swept up in the tide, and tried to fight to keep his place in Clary’s life, as he had since they were little.
However. Once Isabelle came into the picture, his characterization became shaky at best. He was shown, as a point of conflict, to be fawning over Isabelle, who is already the subject of Clary’s ire, because of her good looks and talents. So Simon falls from her side to “drool” over Isabelle, leaving the opening clear for Jace (in a really gross Star Wars plot twist!), and things get worse from there. Just when Simon shows that he is a great dude and just wants to stay friends with Clary while she discovers this new world into which she was born and then hidden, we get hit with the big bomb.
Simon has been manipulating girls to “practice” for Clary all the years he’s been stuck in the friendzone. Thank the sweet lord that Clare doesn’t actually use the term here—I think the book was written before “friendzone” had any standing, but lord help us if it did—but it’s pretty clear that the situation is exactly what the friendzone describes. The problem with Simon’s behavior is that he isn’t called out on what a horrible, terrible thing he did. Simon admitted to Clary that he had no feelings for the other girls he dated, or at least not the same types of feelings that he has had for Clary. There’s no way that a boy would approach someone and say, “I need practice on how to be a good boyfriend for when my best friend I’m in love with realizes that WE should date, so you wanna go out?” And that means that Simon entered these relationships fully aware that they weren’t “real,” that they were a means to an end.
The girls he dated, however, would have been under the impression that they were in a sincere relationship. We have to assume that, as readers, because Simon doesn’t say anything about coming to a mutual agreement with the other girls to create an equal partnership. And that’s what makes him such a disgusting person: he’s knowingly creating unequal relationships for the sake of gaining something for himself. He gains experience (with what, I don’t even know, because he never actually elaborates on this, and it’s never brought up again). The girls THINK they’re gaining a caring boyfriend, but Simon is emotionally detached. He has feelings for Clary, but settles down for other girls to meet his physical needs. He treats his girlfriends as breathing blow-up dolls. Even if he’s not having sex with them, if he’s entering their relationships without the ability to connect with them, he’s using them for his own gain without regard for their needs or wants. He doesn’t say to Clary that he dated them to hope to get over her, he says to Clary that he dated them as practice. So he planned on not getting attached.
Towards the end of the novel, Simon seems to have accepted the fact that Clary just isn’t into him. Finally, some maturity emerges. However, again, no one addresses Simon’s behavior. He isn’t punished for being really shockingly misogynistic and putting Clary on a pedestal and using other girls. In fact, Clary is punished—he refuses to speak to her for a while, and is gruff and abrupt with her, and SHE feels guilted and shamed for not returning his feelings (and I’ve seen the fandom encouraging this, so this is really serious and NEEDS addressing, because this carries over to real life far too easily, and it’s poison for ladies in relationships, and can lead to VIOLENCE against them). So even while I was cheering for Simon for “killing” a greater demon while the great Shadowhunters couldn’t—shoving their faces in how useless really Mundanes are—I was still scrambling for any resolution to this plotline. But, of course, there was none. Clare introduced this disgusting flawed behavior, and let the character get away with it, just cementing the level of acceptability outside of the fictional world.
Surprise, the most-hated character in the book is actually my favorite. Isabelle has the most ridiculous characterization in the book, I won’t lie. Clare sets her up as the foil to Clary, but only presents her ever as being more beautiful and thus the source of Clary’s hatred, because this isn’t an overdone trope at all or anything.
But I love Isabelle because despite Jace and Clary constantly treating her like shit—even if it’s just in the narration—she does what she has to. She came from a background that was really sexist, and only just let women begin joining the ranks as Shadowhunters. Jace admits that Isabelle probably wouldn’t have been relegated to the kitchens like previous generations of women, because she is so skilled, but I imagine that the possibility of that happening in the very recent past (only one or two generations removed?) would have pushed her to perform. She uses her good looks to her advantage with boys to date and fuck around, but she’s villainized for having relationships on her own terms.
Let me take a quick moment to clarify what the difference between Isabelle and Simon is with regards to their relationships. Simon’s intentions weren’t made clear until he announced it to Clary. Also, men (especially teenagers and young adults) are expected to date multiple women and break their hearts. It’s a badge of honor. From the very beginning, Isabelle is characterized by the other characters in her life as being a ball-breaker, as someone who will date and then dump haphazardly. Her intentions for relationships are made very clear just about from the time she is first introduced, so it’s easy to assume that the men in her life are more aware of the terms of their relationship than Simon’s girlfriends were of theirs. Plus, women who date around, who don’t commit themselves with their whole hearts and souls to men (see the anti-queer thinking of this sexist trope, as well), well, they’re just no good sluts.
That’s where her femme fatale likeness comes in. Isabelle is shown far more often to be stringing Simon along than she is shown to be competent at her job. Jace constantly talks about how she’s guaranteed to break his heart and walk all over it with her heeled boots. We know all about what a bad girlfriend she is, but we don’t get to see any of her fabulous skill at being a Shadowhunter outside of the first scene. Jace, who apparently hates her like he hates everyone else, commends her admirable skill, but the readers don’t get to see any of this for themselves.
So I feel like Isabelle was robbed. She gets hated by everyone—even though no one in this book has any legitimate reason TO hate her—but she does what the fuck she wants, and she does it well. Except for her job. We’re told she’s great at that, though, so we go along with it, like we go along with everything else we have to take Clare’s word for. There was one legitimate redeeming scene, which came just about out of nowhere; Clary and Isabelle confess that they had some typical tension between girls, and they plan to work past it. It came from nowhere, but I’m glad it showed up, because the “Me vs. Other Girls” trope is in too many places; we need more media that shows and celebrates friendships between girls, especially young ones. Girls are pitted against each other in high school on a big scale, so I’m glad Clare at least made an attempt to address this, after presenting it without commentary through the whole rest of the book.
The basic plot of this novel was pretty simple. Clary’s mother is taken, Clary wants to find her, Clary unearths some secrets her mother kept from her, Clary finds her mother. I don’t object to this plot. That’s a pretty good plot. I want more books with mother-daughter bonding and relationships; I was mad that this was another typical teenage girl who hates her mom, but I eased up on it a little as Clary overcame that typical nonsense and came to love and appreciate her mother. I went through the same thing when I dealt with my mother’s alcoholism and had to move out, so I know how hard it can be to have a bad relationship with your mom, and then how freeing it is to recover that bond with her.
But there was so much in this that was unnecessary. Why did Clary and Jace have to ride a motorcycle that runs on mysterious “demon energies” when sunrise was like fifteen minutes away? Why did Simon turn into a rat? Why did they have to save him from vampires? What purpose did any of this serve to further the plot? Clary learned a little bit about runes, but it was mostly tied in with the love triangle plot. Speaking of, the whole love triangle was also really unnecessary. They are overdone and tired. They breed only bad attitudes and rivalry in the fandom, and in the worst cases, they contribute toxic ways of thinking that get really sexist pretty quickly. You’ll notice that sexism is a really common theme in this.
Sexism is actually featured in a number of major plot points. The Luke/Valentine/Jocelyn thing is based on borderline friendzoning, which is sexist. Simon’s reaction to being friendzoned was outright misogynistic. The dynamic between Clary and Isabelle is a sexist trope designed to pit women against each other. The motherless setting is a typical sexist trope that reinforces the idea that women are for fucking and for mothering, but once they don’t need to mother anymore, they’re disposable. Same with women the male characters don’t want to have sex with, of course. That’s why Isabelle gets so little screentime, as well; she isn’t good for fucking or mothering, so she gets shoved to the back, even though she’s one of the greatest Shadowhunters Jace has ever known.
And, of course, the Star Wars reveal. “I am your father! Btw, you kids are related, so stop kissing.” Star Wars did it better, and I don’t even really like Star Wars. Plus, from what I understand, Lucas adjusted that particular point of the plot because of fan reaction to Han versus Luke; if that’s true, it’s still not a great way to handle things, but it’s more excusable. The siblings kissing and the familial reveal are in the same book in Clare’s case. So it was totally unnecessary to include. It added absolutely nothing to the plot, or the characters, or to the conflict. It just came across as kind of uncomfortable. This is yet another thing that wasn’t addressed—Clary and Jace might not have been raised together as siblings, so they might get away with pursuing an incestuous relationship. And if Clary and Jace had actually DISCUSSED this possibility in the book, at any length, at all, instead of trying to sweep it under the rug, then I would have been more interested.
It looks like they plan on not pursuing each other at the end of the novel, when Clary is pushing Jace to meet their mother, but I hear they still pine for each other in following books. Incest is not a squick for me, so I’m not bothered by that, but I AM bothered by the fact that this is a huge reveal for their lives, and they make a big deal out of having a family again, but they never talk about the fact that they made out passionately in the greenhouse.
There is more that I could discuss. But if I really sat down and picked through every instance of problematic content, I would be writing a book of my own. This is already eight and a half pages.