You’ll be glad to know that this is much shorter than my ramble on about Clockwork Angel. Most of what I said there still holds here, so let’s just take all that as a given. Now that we’re in the middle of the story, I want to get into the meat of the themes and plot.
Firstly, more about Tessa’s ability to shapeshift, or at least what we do and no not know about it. Tessa’s shapeshifting is held in pretty high esteem even by the more magical parts of fantasy London, because we are told she doesn’t just change her shape, but really “becomes” another person. She can touch their thoughts and know what they know, but it’s never really made clear whether she’s kind of recreating a snapshot of a mind at the moment of access that she can rummage around in or whether she is going into their actual working mind, and the more she does it, the less clear it is. As she starts practising on dead people, it’s moot, but she’s started shifting into living people more and more and the evidence is contradictory.
What is absolutely clear is that Tessa’s mind does not become someone else’s mind: she seems to always exist as a small independent presence within the confines of a larger mind, whether a model or the real thing. She’s always aware of who she is and what she’s looking for and how different a foreign mind is to hers.
Strong evidence against her recreating a model and for her joining somehow with a working mind is when she shifts into the vampire Camille Belcourt (you will remember her from the Mortal Instruments series) who seems able to actually communicate with Tessa in real time during the shift. Which raises questions about Tessa’s shapeshifting into people without asking permission. Are there ethical concerns here? No one else seems to notice Tessa’s presence in their minds, though some people seem able to block her from accessing their thoughts (or maybe their thoughts are just too evil or “poisonous”, who knows). Annoyingly, despite the narrative telling us at every turn how curious Tessa is, it’s a running theme that she never asks questions about anything important.
Clare tries to introduce through Tessa’s shapeshifting some questions of identity – perhaps there is no real Tessa Gray, just a series of masks. It’s a concept linked perhaps to the questions of nature/nurture good/evil themes she explores in the Mortal Instruments but an interesting question in its own right. Or it would be if she didn’t undermine the idea from the start. Tessa has a couple of half-hearted musings in front of a mirror, but we’ve seen her shapeshift and it’s blindingly obvious that there is a Tessa Gray who retains her personality and memories whether she’s rootling through an old man’s half-arsedly senile mind or imitating a vampire.
Something about Cassandra Clare brings out the backseat driver in me, and I was thinking, when Tessa mused about what would happen if she shifted back slightly wrong, that if Clare really wanted to play up the Victorian Gothic aspect of the story then why not have Tessa suspect that she has morphed back wrong? Have her really wonder about her reflection in detail. Have her become fascinated with mirrors, obsess over some feature of her face that she thinks might have been different before. Have her fixate on any comment people make about her appearance.
Buuut it’s not my story.
Another thing I wanted to discuss sort of touches on some points I made in my post on Clockwork Angel, and that is the characters’ little jaunt to Yorkshire. Disclaimer: I am from the border of Durham and North Yorkshire, so yes, I have opinions on this, and my opinions hold some weight. Clare makes a couple of awkward slips with the dialect, using “dinna” to mean “didn’t” more than once, when it a) means “don’t” and b) isn’t a feature of Yorkshire dialect anyway as far as I can tell??? It’s an alternate spelling of “dinnae”, which is Scots. She also uses “thee” when she should have used “tha”, a mistake related to messing up “thee” and “thou” in ye olde speake. She seems to have had people read for accuracy and anachronisms so the blame for this probably falls on their shoulders too.
The Yorkshire episode is quite clearly meant to be a homage to the Brontës and a touch of Gothic, as everyone in Yorkshire is grim and unfashionable and ancient, and still holds with savage and barbaric ideas. This sort of Northern stereotype is not my favourite thing, but more surprising is the fact that the Infernal Devices are specifically about the development of industry (clockwork things anyway) in Victorian England and the characters go to the industrial backbone of the country and… nothing? I thought the industry of Yorkshire, the factories and innovation, would be important for the story, but Clare describes a city full of hard-faced farmers instead.
And when a character says there’s nothing in Yorkshire but sheep and mines… are you sure? Isn’t Will literally from Wales???
Incidentally, the terrible old man of the York Institute (yet another familiar surname from the Mortal Instruments) is the only Shadowhunter who seemingly exists in the whole North of England, wasting yet another chance to show us what an Institute is supposed to do all day other than stand idle and wait for Cassandra Clare to put a love triangle in it. He’s also a terrible old magic racist, and finally, finally we get an idea of what the bad old days were actually like. So this is why Downworlders hate Shadowhunters. The Shadowhunter main characters of both series are still a bit too perfectly equality-driven to give the impression of structural inequality à la racism in the West, which is obviously where Clare is drawing from. When Tessa is called to testify about the events of the last book, she’s told her testimony counts for half of a Shadowhunter’s, which talks a big game but in practice means nothing – no one questions her reliability or dismisses her words. This is reminiscent of the old American racist weighting of black slaves as 3/5 of a person for voting reasons, and similarly her use of the word “reparations” for injustices to Downworlders echoes American racism and its discourse.
Starkweather (haha geddit because he is from the grim North, though the name is also from the Mortal Instruments) is the worst of the old ways and Clare can deal with that, but she’s much less good at threading the low-level mindset through her non-magic-racists, the inevitable unexamined thoughts of people who have grown up in a structurally unequal society which favours them over others.
My final main discussion point is the love triangle. If one could say that a hallmark of Cassandra Clare’s work is “having your cake and eating it too” then this is the most had and eaten cake of all. What she seems to be going for is an approach by which Tessa can love two boys equally and thus I suppose doesn’t really have to choose? And because it’s a habit of mine to spot the fashionable issue she’s trying to discuss under this and that plot point, I’m guessing she’s going for a poly-friendly approach? Anyway, both boys come with tragic backstories and both are treated by the narrative as primary love interests, almost, which is pretty interesting, because usually love triangles go:
- Girl meets Boy 1
- Boy 1 has other places to be
- Girl gets friendly with Boy 2
- Girl ends up with Boy 1
With various complications along the way.
Will is Boy 1 and he is exactly Clare’s usual brand of unpleasant damaged pretty boy, and he even ends up giving Tessa a load of mixed messages, which she interprets in exactly the oblivious way the plot needs her to, and spending less time with her so she can get friendly with Jem.
Now I like Jem. I think he’s one of the most original things about the series, and more than that, he’s just nice. And Clare does Tessa’s fall for him pretty well – it feels natural (easier to fall for a male character who’s not a dickhead). His dynamic with Tessa is interesting.
BUT they fall for each other just as Will’s “demon curse” is “lifted”, and because everything must be sacrificed on the altar of the love triangle, Jem gets shafted. Tessa suddenly remembers that she also loves Will, and more than that spends half her time almost trying to convince herself that she really does love Jem, which comes across really unfortunately, like she was just with him because Will was giving her mixed messages, or that she pities Jem. It’s not quite the character assassination of Jacob in the Twilight series, but it’s still pretty bad.
- Jem claims outright that relations between men and women are much more equal in the Shadowhunter world, making Charlotte’s difficulty in retaining the Institute even less plausible. Oh and by the way, Charlotte is like twenty five or something ridiculous. Are there no experienced Shadowhunters in the world? Really?
- There were altogether too many instances of people having stupid misunderstandings, especially of the “I know what you’re going to say and the answer is blah” variety. Why would you do this? Why does the other person accept this? This is the worst plot device in the world, even when it’s solved immediately.
- I didn’t mention this in the Clockwork Angel masterpost so let me say it here: Henry’s eccentric genius gimmick is fine, but I draw the line at him telling mundanes about the boxes they keep demons in. Especially when that is the main reason for the villain’s motivation. Clare is better than that and her readers deserve better, despite the terrible faux-profundities they highlight on their Kindles.
- The demon pox thing. Just, ugh. So you’re telling me Will invented this punchline disease that then turns out to be real, and actually he knows enough about it to be able to describe the massively distinctive symptoms? This is one darling that should have been strangled at birth.
- Oh, Will speaks Welsh now, does he? Which means, since this is before the Welsh revival, that he’s from the back of beyond where they speak only Welsh. I suppose his dad could have got over the language barrier with runes, but what about his accent? We’ve heard nothing about Will’s accent, he uses no Welsh dialect words… What’s possibly happened is that Clare accidentally stumbled into something interesting and didn’t bother exploring it.
- That bloody clockwork angel is still not really doing anything. It was barely involved in Clockwork Angel – Henry looks at it, finds nothing, gives it back. No one remarks on the fact that it comes to life to save Tessa? Tessa doesn’t seem to think this is weird either – so much for her intensely curious nature.
- At one point Tessa remarks on Jem’s love of old dead languages, and Jem replies that such languages as Latin, Greek and Sanskrit are just so clear and pure, conveying pure truths beyond anything our modern day languages full of clutter can manage. Not only is this bobbins (as anyone who’s ever studied Latin can attest) but the mistake – surely Jem means Ancient Greek – reinforces the unfortunate stereotype that Americans can’t quite bring themselves to believe that other countries really do exist.
- Despite parabatai relationships not being constrained by gender, we still only get male/male pairs. Gotta keep those fangirls happy.
- Minds are still “whirling” left, right and centre.
- Casually prophetic dreams can go and fling themselves into the sun, please.
- The plural is AUTOMATA for crying out loud. It’s not “automatons”. Where did you get this from?!