Ben Reviews – City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

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I get the impression that the average reader’s fondness for City of Bones by Cassandra Clare is based at least a little bit on when they came across it in their reading journey. If this was among the first Urban Fantasies that a reader ever came across, then I understand why it might hold a special place in their heart. I came to this book in 2023 at the tender age of 35 and I’m not impressed.

I didn’t know much about this book when I started reading it other than that many of my female friends had read it and liked it. I had a vague idea that it was a Twilight-esque paranormal romance from the height of the 2000’s YA boom. At the point of the book where the characters started discussing “The Uprising” I decided to google the phrase “mortal instruments harry potter”. That’s where I learned that Cassandra Clare’s time as a fanfic writer is more dramatic than anything she’s ever written.

It’s easy to point out that City of Bones and The Shadow Hunter universe are constructed from popular tropes in the genre. I don’t think that’s really the cardinal sin that some reviewers think it is. Originality isn’t the most important thing the world, especially in YA. To Clare’s credit, I think she puts the tropes together in an interesting and effective way. The world building is a bit cheesy at times, but its fun. She clearly gets what makes Urban Fantasy compelling as a genre and she knows how to produce it.

Being a genre expert can be a double-edged sword, though. Cassandra Clare cut her teeth writing Harry Potter fanfiction featuring a bad boy version of Draco Malfoy. Before I go much further, I want to be clear: there is nothing wrong with writing fanfiction. I don’t even really care about all her fandom drama. I don’t have the energy to try to parse it. It seems like the whole community was a dumpster fire and Clare failed to rise above it despite her age and increasing success. I only mention her fanfic days for 2 reasons.

The first reason I mention it is that City of Bones is paced like a web novel. A lot of fan fiction and web novels are published as serials. One chapter, or a small batch of chapters, is produced at a time. Readers leave comments and likes on a chapter by chapter basis and it would be silly to think that doesn’t affect how authors write what follows. City of Bones starts off with a bang, ends with a bang, and middles with a series of side quests that follow a similar pattern:

Flirt/Banter -> Lore Dump -> Set Piece/Action -> Debrief At the Quest Hub -> Repeat

What works for a serialized web novel does not necessarily work for a standard traditionally published novel, though. In a web novel, this cycle would build hype and readership as you slowly released the chapters. In a regular novel, we’ve already purchased the whole thing so it feels more like treading water.

The second reason that I mention her fanfic days is because we need to address the elephant in the room: The OTHER Mortal Instruments. In addition to The Draco Trilogy, Cassandra Clare wrote at least one other Harry Potter fanfiction. It was, tellingly, also titled “The Mortal Instruments.” It was a sexually explicit fan fiction featuring Ron and Ginny Weasley, who, if you didn’t know, are brother and sister. I believe she called it Weasleycest. Now, I don’t want to kink shame, but also, you know…maybe be a little more ashamed of that kink. Cassandra Clare did eventually develop some shame about her kink, likely at a publisher’s insistence, but for a long time she was quite open about how attractive she found the forbidden romance between brother and sister to be. It may relieve you to know that Cassandra Clare is an only child.

And you know what, this is a spoiler, but I kind think this is something you should know before you go into the book. The main characters find out at the end, after they’ve romanced and kissed, that they are brother and sister. This puts them in an awkward position. The book ends with them deciding that they won’t, but Clare obviously hopes that you hope that maybe they will. Also, spoiler for a future book, they will. Then after making that decision we’ll find out that it was all a convoluted lie and so even though they were totally ok with doing an incest, it’s not actually incest, so all good.

It’s really shocking that they’ve never been able to make a successful adaptation out of this paranormal YA romance. I can’t imagine what glaringly obvious flaw in the writing would prevent a mainstream, movie-going or television audience from wanting to watch/allow their teens to watch this. I’ve read interviews where Clare, if you’ll pardon the pun, tries to weasel out of admitting that she just finds incest hot. I’ve seen her compare herself to George R.R. Martin…and like…the bible? I don’t think she has delusions of grandeur, I just think she was really put on the spot to come up with a convincing lie and she had nothing. Also, hilariously, they got Cersei’s actress to play the mom in the movie.

The truth is, though, that this is a lady with an incest kink writing incest romance for teens. It’s a theme that comes up again and again in her work. She thinks its hot. I’m willing to bet a decent chunk of her audience thinks its hot. I think its weird. This is something that tends to come up in anime a lot as well. It’s weird there, too. I’ve never seen an instance of incest as “forbidden romance” used successfully. Probably because the most successful forbidden romances rely on you rooting for the couple. In this case, I tend to agree with society regarding the ban on this romance. A lot of forbidden things are stupid, but everyone once in a while we get it right.

This story would be infinitely better if it didn’t go there. Instead it goes there repeatedly. Alec, who is Jayce’s foster brother, wants to get with him. Isabelle, Jayce’s foster sister, is also attracted to him. I understand that Clary’s real brother tries rather forcefully to get with her in an upcoming book. I also understand this comes up in other series and in more recent series the parabatai relationship (“more than brothers”) is exploited as a stand-in for incest.

If you can look the other way, I’m not here to judge. You can certainly read and write about things that you understand would be entirely unacceptable in reality. I’m not suggesting we ban City of Bones or anything like that. What I am suggesting is that there are about 1,000 other Paranormal Romance books out there that are at least as good and without this particular weirdness. If you like the Bone thing, try Bone Season by Samantha Shannon.

The Rubric

Content and Ideas – 3

The plot is very unoriginal. At least at this stage in her career Clare is still leaning heavily on fanfiction techniques. She is mashing up ideas from Buffy, Potter, Charmed, etc. She is developing her own world, though. I understand why people like the Shadow Hunters universe.

Organization – 2

What works for a web novel does not work for a novel. Everyone I have spoken to about the book has felt a little confused by all the twists and turns the story takes to different set pieces. Even those who give the book very favorable reviews have commented on this.

Use of Language – 2

This is likely my most controversial rating. Even Nathaniel was surprised I went so low on this. The dialogue is terrible. The quips are terrible. I physically cringed so many times while reading this book at one of Jayce’s sarcastic zingers. I felt that Clare took a risk by going for such punchy, Whedonesque, dialog and that it fell flat on its face. Additionally, and this is a nitpick, any fantasy element that Clare had to name herself is terrible. “Shadow Hunter” itself is a terrible name.

Personal Preference – 2

The incest kink really is going to kill any chance of my liking this or recommending it. It’s not simply that she used incest as a theme, it is the convoluted hoops she jumped through to make it a thing where it was simply not needed. It requires Valentine to fake his own death twice. I also had a difficult time following how Valentine managed to raise Jayce, in Shadow Hunter country, as Michael Weyland, without anyone noticing for so long. I have to imagine that reveal of how they are actually not siblings will be equally as convoluted and stupid. There are so many other ways to work in a forbidden romance that would have been better.

Recommendation Strength – 1

I would never recommend this to anyone because of the strange fetish. No amount of world building can overcome me having to try to explain to someone why the incest thing is ok, actually. There are numerous Urban Fantasy, Paranormal Romance, and YA series out there that do everything this does and they do it better and they’re not embarrassing to be associated with.


I co-host the Words About Books podcast with my writing partner Nate.

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