Youth Reads: The Mortal Instruments


(Note: This review contains some major spoilers.)

Clary is at a club one night with her best friend, Simon, when she discovers three demon-hunters, Jace, Alec, and Isabelle, in the act of killing a monster. That moment is Clary’s entry into a hidden world full of frightening creatures and those who hunt them, known as the Shadowhunters. It turns out that her mother escaped from this world before Clary was even born, and that there are powerful forces seeking to drag them both back into it.

The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare starts off with a bang, and grows steadily more fast-paced and action-packed from there. When a demon attacks Clary in her own home, she flees to the Institute, the secret home of Jace and his fellow Shadowhunters. There she learns that they’re fighting against a mysterious figure called Valentine, and that her mother, who had something that Valentine wanted badly, has been kidnapped. Though Clary is new to this world, she will soon discover a talent for drawing runes — mysterious patterns that give Shadowhunters power — that will make her indispensable in the war against Valentine.

There are a planned six books in the Mortal Instruments series, of which four (City of BonesCity of GlassCity of Ashesand City of Fallen Angels) have been published. Book 5, City of Lost Souls, is due out in May. Clare is also working on a related series, the Infernal Devices, set in the Victorian era; two of these (The Clockwork Angel and The Clockwork Prince) have been published so far.

Clare has a knack for writing exciting action scenes and witty dialogue, and her books have proven extremely popular among young fantasy lovers. There are, however, some causes for concern in them.

Although the Shadowhunters devote their lives to fighting demons, they generally follow no clearly defined belief system. We see this in City of Bones, when Jace takes Clary to a nearby church to find a cache of weapons kept there specifically for Shadowhunters. This leads to the following conversation between the two of them:

“And this is, what, some kind of deal you have with the Catholic Church?”

“Not specifically. Demons have been on Earth as long as we have. They’re all over the world, in their different forms — Greek daemons, Persian daevas, Hindu asuras, Japanese oni. Most belief systems have some method of incorporating both their existence and the fight against them. Shadowhunters cleave to no single religion, and in turn all religions assist us in our battle. I could as easily have gone for help to a Jewish synagogue or a Shinto temple. . . .”

He shrugged. “I’m not really a believer.”

Clary looked at him in surprise. “You’re not?”

He shook his head. . . . “You thought I was religious?” he asked.

“Well.” She hesitated. “If there are demons, then there must be . . .”

“Must be what?” Jace slid the vial into his pocket. “Ah,” he said. “You mean if there’s this” — and he pointed down, toward the floor — “there must be this.” He pointed up, toward the ceiling.

“It stands to reason. Doesn’t it?”

Jace lowered his hand and picked up a blade, examining the hilt. “I’ll tell you,” he said. “I’ve been killing demons for a third of my life. I must have sent five hundred of them back to whatever hellish dimension they crawled out of. And in all that time — in all that time — I’ve never seen an angel. Never even heard of anyone who has.”

“But it was an angel who created Shadowhunters in the first place,” Clary said. “That’s what Hodge said.”

“It makes a nice story. . . .”

The passage ends with Jace saying, “There might be a God, Clary, and there might not, but I don’t think it matters. Either way, we’re on our own.”

Jace’s theories about angels prove to be flawed, as he and Clary will encounter two of them in the second book, City of Glass. Nonetheless, there’s something in the passage above that’s true to the overall tone of the series. The theme is elaborated on in City of Fallen Angels:

“All stories are true,” said Isabelle. This had been a tenet of her beliefs since she was a child. All Shadowhunters believed it. There was no one religion, no one truth — and no myth lacked meaning.

Though most Shadowhunters do believe in angels and/or God — Clary observes that they seem to “worship” the Angel who founded their race, and she’s not far off — their belief has little real impact on their lives. Jace’s father “believed in a righteous God” — but Jace’s father, as we eventually learn, was not the sort of example that any decent person would want to follow.

As Jace’s remarks above show, certain objects and drawings can contain divine power, but that power seems to work much as magic works in the Harry Potter series, more as a mechanical force than as a gift bestowed by a divine Giver. It may even be questioned how much power the divine really has, as the Mortal Instruments of the series title allow a Shadowhunter to summon the Angel and compel him to grant a request.

As well, free will seems to play little role in this world. Both people and objects can be turned evil through no fault of their own. Simon, a believing Jew, is turned into a vampire partway through the series, and though he remains on the side of the good guys, he finds that he is now physically unable to speak the name of God. Another character is essentially turned into a soulless monster before birth, due to horrific experiments conducted on him while still in the womb.

Additionally, extramarital sex is considered normal and acceptable. Clary and Jace engage in some extremely heavy petting (though they haven’t yet gone all the way); Alec begins a homosexual relationship with a warlock, though it’s never explicitly described; and Isabelle’s promiscuity is frequently hinted at. She even laments that the angel who created Shadowhunters didn’t provide a rune for birth control.

The subject of sex brings up an even more troubling aspect of the series. Following a discovery made in the first book, Jace and Clary believe that they are brother and sister, but they can’t stop lusting after each other, and even come close to acting on that lust while they still think they’re siblings. (This relationship reveals weaknesses not only in the books’ morality, but also in Clare’s writing: She can’t seem to break the habit of making stunning revelations about Jace’s identity, so that we veer back and forth between “They’re siblings! No they’re not! Yes they are! No they’re not!”) When one investigates what young readers are saying about the books online, they show a tendency — or at least they did before the final “No they’re not!” revelation — to want Clary and Jace together even while acknowledging that an incestuous relationship would be wrong.

All that said, it’s not hard to understand the appeal of these books, at least on a superficial level. For all their flaws, Clare’s characters are loyal, clever, strong, and brave. But like much other modern fantasy — the popular TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer comes to mind — the Mortal Instruments series has a more highly developed sense of evil than of good. Thus, while we’re made aware that the fight against evil is the most important thing in the world, the moral relativism of the books can make it hard to understand, in the final analysis, precisely what the good guys are fighting for.

Image copyright Margaret K. McElderry Books. Review copies obtained from the reviewer’s local libraries.

Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint Online and Dickensblog.

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