This is going to be an absolute monster post, so bear with me.
I don’t usually talk much about the authors of the books I read, because I like a work to stand on its own merit. But Cassandra Clare is a bit of a special case. I was very aware of her before she ever got her first book deal, and what she was known for was plagiarism. Fanfiction plagiarism, so the stakes are in some ways lower, but as fanfiction really exists on sufferance (especially nowadays, with more crossover between fanfiction and trad publishing) it’s a crime of honour. And Clare did particularly well out of fandom in general – it’s hard to imagine, for instance, that her huge internet following played absolutely no part in her being given the publishing chance she was – and people have long memories. Perhaps if she’d ever taken responsibility or apologised then things would be different, but here we are.
Anyway, I’ve read all of the Mortal Instruments books, and by the end she started to weave them in with the Infernal Devices trilogy (Clockwork Angel, Clockwork Prince and Clockwork Princess) despite the time difference between the two series. You can imagine how annoyed I was that the ending of the Mortal Instruments loses something if you haven’t read the apparently separate, standalone series set over a century earlier. Not to mention the spoilers for the Infernal Devices ending (which, admittedly, I had mostly forgotten by the time I got there). So I put the Infernal Devices on my TBR because why not, and people had said her writing had improved and I wanted to see if they were right.
So, has she improved?
In some ways, yes. In others, she falls into the same old traps, tropes and flaws. She also makes new mistakes.
The Infernal Devices trilogy is set a hundred and something years before the Mortal Instruments series (by the way, you’ll be pleased to know that the thesaurus hasn’t let her down yet, and she has also published the Dark Artifices series since) and is set in Victorian London.
The book opens with a note from the author herself telling us her inspiration to write the book, and how she spent six months reading nothing but Victorian literature before writing, that one of the characters is tragically dying (thanks for the spoiler?!) and is based on Lord Byron, that another character can talk to ghosts (spoiler from the end of the trilogy – this barely comes into play at all) and that the heroine’s love of books is very meaningful and that Clare hopes every bookworm girl will be inspired by her (the heroine). So she knows her audience – she always has. It’s how she was so successful in fandom, back in the day. It all feels a bit presumptuous and a bit overly grand, and a bit cheeky, too. You can’t very well tell the reader how they’re supposed to interpret your book before they start reading it.
The story itself is about Tessa Gray, totally normal girl coming to London to live with her brother, except actually she’s special in ways she never imagined and falls into the world of Shadowhunters and love triangles. So far, so Clare. There are other elements that readers of the Mortal Instruments series will find familiar: daddy issues, brother issues, an inept dabbling in gender politics (of which more later), a damaged boy with a terrible secret/past who’s angry at everything and copes through irreverent witty humour. Also a Herondale, by the way.
It’ll be easier for me to recap my old grievances first. Let’s start with worldbuilding. I was really hoping that the atmosphere of Victorian London would bring out more of how the Shadowhunters actually work in their heyday, but the dynamics of the London Institute in the 1870s are almost identical to those of the New York Institute in the 2000s. A big grand building run basically by a nobody (in the Mortal Instruments we had a sort of Shadowhunter ex-con and here we have – gasp! – a woman!) with capacity for hundreds of Shadowhunters but only ever occupied by a handful. This is odd for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it’s still not entirely clear what Institutes are for. They’re kind of like Shadowhunter orphanages except that for such a death-prone people there are only ever two or three Shadowhunter orphans in Victorian London – in the whole South of Victorian England, really – and early 2000s New York alike. Wouldn’t it be more efficient to have some kind of large house instead of a giant empty repurposed church? A small church, even? Other Shadowhunters in the vicinity live on unconsecrated ground, so there’s no reason why you have to have orphans there. At the same time, the Institute seems to be some kind of meeting place and hub for local Shadowhunters, which makes sense – they contain weapons stores and training rooms and libraries – but no ones ever there except when things go wrong. Basically, if the Institutes ever worked the way they were supposed to, all would be well, but they simply never seem to. This ties in with one of Clare’s long-running difficulties with worldbuilding. She seems unable to add any sense of depth or scale to the world.
OK, nerd talk. Creating story worlds is like any other art, in that part of the intention is always to make a world, whether fantasy, real or almost real, feel bigger than the page. You want the world to feel lived-in, for it to feel like when the book is closed the characters go off to live their lives unseen. Just like in a two-dimensional painting, in which a skilled painter can give the impression of vast spaces and depths using certain techniques, there are techniques that give the same impression in writing. For example, if we were to see background characters – not even secondary characters with arcs and personalities, necessarily, but just random Shadowhunters in the library looking for books on X because in Y they’re having problems with Z or whatever, then we’d get the impression that Shadowhunter London is a busy place with a lot going on. If the weapons stores were full of people replacing lost or broken seraph blades or whatever, then we would have more of a sense that Shadowhunters spend a lot of time out risking their lives and not just taking tea and wandering the streets of London at their leisure.
Things like this don’t need to take up a lot of time and space (it’s usually better if they don’t) but it shows the reader an awful lot. It’s a valuable aspect of storytelling. And it would solve some of Clare’s more unique world problems. Readers of the Mortal Instruments series will recognise almost every single surname, for instance. I assume it’s supposed to be a sort of Easter egg for the Constant Reader, but it has the unfortunate effect of making her world seem a bit inbred. And more than that, if the Lightwoods are in London then who is in New York? There are Fairchilds in London and Herondales in Wales and who will be in the UK in the 2000s? In recycling the same families so exclusively over time and space, she actually makes her world seem smaller.
And 2000s New York is specifically facing a downturn in Shadowhunter numbers. We should be enjoying a Shadowhunter Golden Age in the most powerful country in the world, and yet the Institute stands half-empty. And speaking of the most powerful country in the world, what about the British Empire? Clare likes to show herself to be aware of this kind of thing, so she has a half-Chinese Shadowhunter (as well as the return of Dutch-Indonesian Magnus Bane) but she sidesteps the race issue (and colonialism issue) with a few half-hearted “Ooh, those foreigners, am I right?” comments from the worst Shadowhunter in the Institute and the rather lazy “Shadowhunters first, country of origin second” explanation, which doesn’t explain how Jem feels about being in the UK or having grown up in Shanghai, ruled by people who wouldn’t have cared how little loyalty he owed his ethnic heritage. We are told that opium is bad though, so there is that.
Clare doubles down on her questionable gender stuff (Isabelle deserved better!) because now of course we are in the past, when gender is a bigger deal in the wider world and possibly the Shadowhunter world as well. In the Shadowhunter world women seem to have always been regarded as equals in terms of things like clothing and fighting, at least going by Tessa’s brief forays into the Shadowhunter Codex, a sort of how-to guide for… people who didn’t know they were Shadowhunters? Shadowhunter children? It’s not obvious who the intended audience is, anyway. But for some reason, everyone has a problem with Charlotte Branwell (named after two Brontës, natch) running the London Institute. Strange not only because they don’t mind women fighting but because there are other women on various Councils and showing up to all kinds of important meetings who don’t seem to have the same problem. And just like with Jem’s experience of half-hearted racism, no one really does much about Charlotte’s authority except the odd snide comment so cartoonishly evil that you can’t take it seriously.
And then there’s Tessa and Jessamine. Tessa is our bookworm heroine who gets to learn that women really can do worthwhile things, and Jessamine is an amazing caricature of shallow Victorian ideal femininity, a stereotype of lazy, selfish wealth who is punished over and over for fitting into that mould, for the expected path of a lady being just her size. She’s thought of as terrible by Tessa, who harbours plenty of patriarchal ideas of her own, especially at the beginning of the book. Even by the maidservant, uneducated accomplice to gender norms.
Tessa’s ideas of gender politics are strikingly inconsistent. I see what Clare was aiming for, trying to give her a more historically typical mindset rather than making her a 21st Century girl in a corset, but she never quite pulls it off. We get some lip service “golly! imagine if a woman actually fought!” stuff but at the same time she hates being told what she can and can’t do because she’s female, and whenever Jessamine is happy to let a man do something she finds that feminism deep inside and gets indignant.
A little more about Jessamine. I suppose that Jessamine is Isabelle writ large, or at least writ before: the pretty, fashionable, perhaps slightly vain flirt in a world where women aren’t supposed to be much else (except in the Shadowhunter world). Jessamine is what Isabelle might have been, in a different place and time, in a narrow society where she is engineered to succeed beautifully. More accurately, Jessamine is the Rosalie Hale to Tessa’s Bella Swan, silly and frivolous but dangerous, never wanted to be a Shadowhunter/vampire, only wants to get married and have kids and live in luxury, friends with the dull bookworm only for her own ends. I have nothing against unlikeable characters, but Jessamine is just so needlessly, stupidly horrible that you can’t take her seriously. No one can talk about anything at all without Jessamine giving her idiot opinion on it. Coming from Cassandra Clare, self-professed feminist hero, this parodic characterisation feels particularly cruel. Not to mention that time she murdered a gnome or whatever in the park and didn’t tell anyone, despite this obviously being incredibly bad for the already strained relations between Downworlders and Shadowhunters. Spoiler from the end of the trilogy: not only is this never mentioned again but another faerie (of course that spelling) is killed needlessly by a Shadowhunter with no repercussions.
Speaking of Downworlders, Clare still has not managed to show the vaunted Shadowhunter ill-treatment of Downworlders with any efficiency. After the murder above, you’d expect the faeries to be absolutely furious, but nothing happens, which dilutes the effect. And most of the Shadowhunters we spend our time with are scrupulously fair, so for the most part it feels like manufactured drama. The Downworlders are really the only ones who break the Accords. One of the big bads, a vampire, demands Downworlder representation on the Council, met with an unconvincing “That’s ridiculous” from Charlotte to show that Shadowhunters are terribly prejudiced, but as it’s unclear what the Council really does it’s hard to get worked up about it except for the vaguely governmenty sound of it. The same vampire accuses Shadowhunters of making it illegal to even dislike Shadowhunters, which would genuinely be quite powerful and oppressive, if it wasn’t for the fact that the vampire was just trying to get out of being punished for his regular murder orgies.
The main problem here is that Clare seems to misunderstand how discrimination works, or be at least unable to portray it effectively, and that she isn’t very good at writing nuanced characters. It’s increasingly frustrating that she keeps coming back to themes of oppression and equality and failing in the same ways to say anything meaningful.
The last of my old grievances is her writing itself on a technical level. She’s definitely improving, but there’s still a regular tick-tick-tick of misused words and clunkily-worded jokes and little grammatical errors (misplaced commas – at one point she talks about “pillars, like sentinels with alcoves between” which would make more sense as “pillars like sentinels, with alcoves between” as sentinels aren’t particularly known for their proximity to alcoves, and at another point a character tells another to stop being “maudlin” when he obviously means “mawkish” or “sentimental”) which jarred me out of the story.
This leads neatly into my new issues, because Clare opens up a whole new world of linguistic mistakes by making Tessa and her brother American and everyone else Victorian English and Welsh, and the narrative American. This was always going to be a recipe for disaster, but bizarrely she puts distinctly British-sounding constructions in the mouths of her American characters as well as Americanisms in the British dialogue (“toward”, “out front”, “roust” etc). It’s impossible to tell characters apart by voice, whether male or female, old or young, rich or poor, English, Welsh, half-Chinese or American. About halfway through Clare remembers that class exists and then sometimes Sophie the servant girl will get a bit cockney when agitated. Sometimes “last” sounds like “larst”, we are told, which is not that significant a difference between RP and East End pronunciation and certainly not a difference that someone speaking with a rhotic accent would describe in such a way.
I assume Clare has been a victim of her own research here and is dutifully recreating a phonetic lower class accent without putting that into the context of Tessa’s American ears. She seems to have also dug out the most colourful British slang she could find, which is… never the best idea. While phrases such as “boiled as an owl” and “off his chump” may be authentically British sayings of old, they stand out in a story that’s mostly written in a very grand, formal style, full of dramatic “ands” and “fors” instead of “because”.
To finish this monster, let’s talk about Jem. I’ve had a decent whine about Will, the egregious clone of Jace, and Jessamine the cartoon villain, and even Tessa the inconsistent feminist, but Jem has been positively left out. This is partly because he’s one of the most original characters in the story (though tragically ill pretty boy is still pretty tropey) and partly because, trope as he is, I totally have a soft spot for the consumptive waifs. I know, I know. I mostly want to talk about his particular affliction.
The consumptive aspect of it is very Victorian, but his addiction to some kind of demon powder seems to be a kind of metaphor for the Opium Wars or something? It doesn’t make much sense beyond the “addiction to lethal substance” part so either it’s not a great analogy or the way Jem explained it was misleading (to he reader, of course, not to Tessa). All this is fine (except not for Jem…) but there’s another aspect that bothers me. I get that his condition is controllable so he can be useful most of the time and just have the odd dramatic crisis, but the way he got addicted in the first place is a bit hmmm. A demon basically tortured him with demon poison to get at his parents and it was all very unpleasant, but all that the substance does now is keep him functional (and slowly kill him). Nothing of the original torture remains. And it feels a bit like cheating, a bit convenient, a bit too much like a plot device to have a chronically ill/dying character for tragedy reasons, without having to deal with the rest of the gruelling difficulty.
This book, like other Cassandra Clares, is full of unkilled darlings wandering about, mostly in the form of lol random anecdotes from nowhere or whole useful conversations derailed for the sake of a witticism or one-liner, usually something funny but sometimes something #deep. You can spot them a mile off because they all have 800 highlights in the Kindle version. As I said, she knows her audience.
This is all a shame because honestly she’s pretty decent plotwise. She can keep up the suspense and pace a story well, put in twists (spoiler from the end of the trilogy: no incest twists this time thank god) and I think it’s her plotting that carries her through. It’s just a shame about… all the rest of it. I’ve heard that the Mortal Instruments are based on some of her Harry Potter fanfiction (not the plagiarised one at least) and the Infernal Devices draw heavily from the Mortal Instruments, as far as I can see so far. Time will tell whether she keeps on doing the same things in the same ways (is it possible to plagiarise your own work?) and it’s only going to get more obvious if she does so, but I’m not sure it’ll be me looking into it. Might be a job for a different reader.