Friday, January 2, 2009

The Importance of Being Nephilim

My daughter recommended some books to me this summer, and it took me until December to get around to them. Once I did, though, they meshed interestingly with some of the other YA books I've been reading (see previous mention here and another pop culture reference here), and lived up to the cover blurb by Holly Black that made Eleanor notice the first one, City of Bones, by Cassandra Clare.

We both liked Holly Black's Tithe, Valiant and Ironside, and like that series, this one has some original ideas and images to add to the fantasy, while it's based on age-old stories. In City of Bones, the Nephilim are called "Shadowhunters." They hunt demons and, under the auspices of their "Clave," have some authority over "Downworlders," like vampires and werewolves. The main character, Clary, begins the story unaware that she is the daughter of a powerful Shadowhunter who has raised her as human, Jocelyn, and that her father is one of the biggest villains in Shadowhunter history, thought to have died fifteen years before. Clary believes that her father, Valentine, is dead, and that the fine-looking Shadowhunter boy she is falling in love with, Jace, is no relation. Almost like Jack Worthing, Clary discovers the overwhelming importance of her family connections, which strikes me as funny.

There's a lot of humor in the books, which are collectively called "The Mortal Instruments" after the objects the characters are racing to find, in order to thwart the villain. When Jace shows Clary a picture of the "mortal cup," he points to the motto on its base, in Latin, and tells her "it means 'Shadowhunters: Looking Better in Black Than the Widows of our Enemies Since 1234.'" It's not just Jace who is funny, either. The dialogue has good moments, like when a group of young Shadowhunters climbs into a van with Clary and her friend Simon:
"Shotgun!" announced Clary as Jace came back around the side of the van.
Alec grabbed for his bow, strapped across his back. "Where?"
"She means she wants the front seat," said Jace, pushing wet hair out of his eyes.
And in the middle of all the teenage agonizing over Clary being unable to reciprocate her best friend Simon's feelings of romantic love, there are spots of humor. Simon tells her
"I'd always hoped that when I finally said 'I love you' to a girl, she'd say 'I know' back, like Leia did to Han in Return of the Jedi."
"That is so geeky," Clary said, unable to help herself.
Even at one of the climactic moments of the book, when Clary learns that Valentine is her father, she says:
"Don't get upset? You're telling me that my dad is a guy who's basically an evil overlord, and you want me not to get upset?"

Despite the humor, though, the evil in City of Bones is very real. Before we know it's Valentine, we can tell there's something very wrong with a father who gives his son a falcon, tells him to train it, and then breaks its neck so that the boy will learn "that to love is to destroy, and that to be loved is to be the one destroyed." We see, as Clary says, that "he was clearly evil. All that stuff he was spouting about keeping the human race pure and the importance of untainted blood--he was like one of those creepy white power guys." Or like a Slytherin, we might think. But Valentine is not a two-dimensional villain with a black mustache. His son also tells the story of how, when he was five, he wanted to take a bath in spaghetti, and his father arranged it. Valentine, for some reason, refrains from killing his son at the end of City of Bones, and again in the second book in the series, City of Ashes.

City of Ashes continues the humor, the love story, and the machinations of evil, and I enjoyed it as much or more than the first book. As I said in an earlier review, Clare is not very interested in how her "Shadowhunters" and "Downworlders" got to be the way they are since they were first named. In a rare moment of introspection, a werewolf named Maia thinks to herself: "Vampires and werewolves were just people with a disease, that much she understood, but expecting her to believe in all that heaven and hell crap, demons and angels, and still nobody could tell her for sure if there was a God or not, or where you went after you died?"

The villain, Valentine, seems less evil in the second book, as though he is trying to seduce the reader along with the other characters. He sounds almost convincing to me when he says "humans create distinctions between themselves, distinctions that seem ridiculous to any Shadowhunter. Their distinctions are based on race, religion, national identity, any of a dozen minor and irrelevant markers. To mundanes these seem logical, for though mundanes cannot see, understand, or acknowledge the demon worlds, still somewhere buried in their ancient memories, they know that there are those that walk this earth that are other." As he goes on, he sounds almost logical to Clary, except that she has the perspective to see that "somehow he'd made it impossible for her to disagree with him without feeling as if she were standing up for demons who bit children in half."

The love stories seem to be sorted out in the second book, although they are not fully resolved. There's a nice moment when the man who has helped Jocelyn raise Clary, Luke, talks to her about not being able to love Simon in the way he'd like her to:
"Clary, I'm telling you he made his own decisions. What you're blaming yourself for is being what you are. And that's no one's fault and nothing you can change. You told him the truth and he made up his own mind what he wanted to do about that. Everyone has choices to make; no one has the right to take those choices away from us. Not even out of love."
"But that's just it," Clary said. "When you love someone, you don't have a choice....Love takes your choices away."
"It's a lot better than the alternative."

And the moments of humor are even better. One of the reasons for this is that the warlock Magnus has a bigger role in the plot, and he's always fun, whether throwing a party, gelling his hair, or healing and rescuing the heroes. When Clary asks his age, he replies "I was alive when the Dead Sea was just a lake that was feeling a little poorly." In addition to Magnus' untraditional flamboyance, other characters are described in passing as perhaps different from their stock images:
Clary turned to Luke. "Have you got a spider anywhere?"
Luke looked exasperated. "Why would I have a spider? Do I look like someone who would collect them?"
"No offense," Jace said, "but you kind of do."
The high point of the humor, for me at least, is when Clary and Luke try to help Simon, who has become a vampire, try to explain what has happened to him to his parents. Luke gives Clary a pamphlet entitled "How to Come Out to Your Parents" which Simon reads out loud to Clary, substituting the word "undead" for the word "gay":
"Mom, I have something to tell you. I'm undead. Now, I know you may have some preconceived notions about the undead. I know you may not be comfortable with the idea of me being undead. But I'm here to tell you that the undead are just like you and me." Simon paused. "Well, okay. Possibly more like me than you....The first thing you need to understand is that I'm the same person I always was. Being undead isn't the most important thing about me. It's just part of who I am. The second thing you should know is that it isn't a choice. I was born this way." Simon squinted at her over the pamphlet. "Sorry, reborn this way."

There are other good jokes, but it would be mean of me to give them away. Get City of Bones and City of Ashes and read them for yourself sometime this winter, before the third book, already written, comes out on March 24. Eleanor and I are waiting anxiously for it.


KD said...

Interestingly, Cassandra Clare appears to be the same author I first heard of in the Harry Potter fanfiction commnity. She wrote a fairly creative trilogy about Draco...Draco Veritas, Draco Sinister, Draco Dormiens, if I remember correctly. It's been years since I thought of it or her, but that falcon story appears in characterizing Draco's interaction with his father, so I expect that the pen name isn't a coincidence. I'll have to see if I can track down one of these new books in the library. I'm short of time--new (hundred-year-old, poorly-maintained) house, new job, new baby--but I read anyway.

readersguide said...

That would be really interesting if she did come out of the HP fanfiction community. Hah! (I think I might remember her name, too, although maybe not those stories.)