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Category Archives: urban fantasy

Review: City of Ashes

City of Ashes, by Cassandra Clare
7.5/10, a worthy and exciting sequel to “City of Bones

SPOILERS for “City of Bones” contained herein…

In “City of Bones,” Clary, a teenaged girl growing up in New York, spots what appears to be a brutal murder in the back room of a dance club. The three teenagers involved are surprised that she’s seen them, and lead her into a world of demons and angels, werewolves and vampires. More shocking than that is the realization that she herself is a part of this world, more intimately than she knows.

“City of Ashes” picks up right where “Bones” left off, with Clary’s mother in a coma and herself torn between feeling not romantic enough about her best friend Simon, and too romantic about her newly-revealed brother, the Shadowhunter (demon slayer) Jace. Meanwhile, her–and Jace’s–father, Valentine, has stolen one of the Mortal Instruments that will allow him to overturn the rule of the Shadowhunters, and has designs on a second one.

Clary, Jace, and Simon get tossed right into the action, fighting not only Valentine, but also demons, werewolves, vampires, the faerie court, and other Shadowhunters. “Ashes” does what every good fantasy sequel should: keeps the story racing along while expanding the world. We get to meet Valentine for the first time, see the world of the Downworlders (werewolves and vampires) more in depth, meet more Shadowhunters, and witness an existential argument between a werewolf and a vampire over who is more human. Clare’s prose carries the story well, building rich, vivid descriptions and terrifically bright characters.

The characters are one of the strongest points of “Ashes.” Clary is a pretty typical teen, as is Simon, and the secondary characters in their world have the distinctive palette of a good supporting cast. Especially entertaining are the gay warlock Magnus Bane and the Queen of the Seelie Court. The weakest point is Jace, who is flip and sarcastic almost to the point of being a caricature, even when his life is threatened, his father confronts him, and he’s trying to reconcile his love for his sister. But his sarcasm is at least amusing, and it really balances Clary’s serious nature. To be honest, I have a bias against all-powerful pretty-boys (see Aiken Drum from the Saga of Pliocene Exile), so that might be coloring my perception. Certainly I’m not the primary audience for the book.

The book is a fast, fun read, and if the plot occasionally hinges on a character’s stubborn refusal to listen to advice, it never stretches believability to do so. By the end of it, as is appropriate for the middle book of a fantasy trilogy, things look pretty dire, both for the characters’ personal lives and for the world at large. If you like urban fantasy, this is one of the best examples of the genre–the major strike against it being that you’ll have to wait a year or two for the third book.

Review: The Golem’s Eye

The Golem’s Eye, by Jonathan Stroud
8/10, a thrilling adventure but somewhat of a letdown from the first

I have a bit of a peeve against trilogies that are clearly written as trilogies; something that comes out as “book 1” before the others are even published rubs me the wrong way; it shouldn’t, really, because why shouldn’t an author plan out a trilogy and know there are going to be three books in advance? Well, because you should be setting out to tell a story, and the story is as long as it should be. I don’t feel any annoyance at Ms. Rowling for planning a seven-book series, so why the bother about a trilogy? Maybe because they’re so common. Still, the three-act structure is a common enough one, and in this case I’ve no objection to reading more about Bartimaeus the djinn and his master, now known as John Mandrake.

Since the first book, Mandrake has come up in the world, now apprenticed to the Information Minister and working for Internal Affairs. But there’s a problem: an unknown monster has been ravaging London, and as it is a magical creature, it’s Internal Affairs’ problem. Mandrake is put in charge of the investigation as it is presumed to be connected with the shadowy Resistance that has been launching small raids on magicians for the past few years, which he is already in charge of investigating. And because he needs magical help of the first order, and some snappy comebacks, he summons again the djinn Bartimaeus.

Bartimaeus, having thought that the end of their association at the conclusion of the previous adventure was permanent, is none too pleased, but a judicious threat from Mandrake convinces him to cooperate this time. And so our heroes are off again on another adventure through a curiously time-frozen London, where computers are occasionally mentioned, but the flow of news and information is as sluggish as it was in colonial times.

The problem in this book is that Mandrake has grown up, now a lad of fourteen, and has spent two years under the inflexible tutelage of Ms. Whitwell, who we remember from being in charge of torturing prisoners in book one. He is eager for power, and from his master is learning all sorts of things, not just about powerful magic, but about undermining your enemies and currying political favor; about treating commoners and spirits with the same contempt; about putting yourself and your ambitions first. As a consequence, Mandrake is considerably less likable in this book than he was in the first. Bartimaeus has, of course, contempt for all humans, but even he channels the reader’s thoughts in his disappointment that Mandrake has grown up to be a typical magician.

Into the vacuum of sympathetic characters jumps Kitty Jones, a briefly appearing figure from book one, here fully realized as one of the leaders of the Resistance. Her story illuminates the plight of the commoners and the attitude of most of them: they toil for the magicians, but they don’t mind, because the magicians protect them from the evil foreigners and thus deserve everything they get. (One sees here, and in the third book, definite echoes of modern political issues.) Kitty herself is a scrappy, loyal fighter, who doesn’t accept that magicians deserve all they get. Like John Mandrake, she falls in with a crowd of people who value her abilities and want to help her; like him, she is nobler than the people who surround her; unlike him, she has the strength to carve out her own path.

In fact, the trio of main characters are skilfully drawn with some wonderful parallels. Bartimaeus is literally a slave; Mandrake is just as much a slave to the society he has joined, as is Kitty a slave to the magicians. Through Kitty’s rebellion against magicians, and eventually her companions, we gain a little bit of hope that Mandrake may exhibit similar strength of character. Alas, there is not much of that in this book, which appears to serve primarily to set up the third.

Don’t get me wrong: this book has all the charm, wit, and action of the first, in addition to which the class strife between the magicians and commoners is well explored and well drawn. I tore through this one as quickly as I did the first book. The problem is that there’s too much time spent introducing Kitty, and that, this being the second act of a planned trilogy, the development of the main character must take a downward turn before (one hopes) the final revelation and redemption. Kitty makes for a fascinating character, but she doesn’t have the interesting flaws of Nathaniel/John, nor the sarcastic flair of Bartimaeus, and watching John Mandrake’s descent into cold, calculating efficiency at the expense of human relationships is, well, just a bit depressing. The characters come together briefly at the end, but the overarching feeling from this book is one of intense loneliness on the part of all three.

Despite the problems, I recommend this book heartily, as a fun adventure on its own, and for the societal issues, but mostly because you have to get through this one to read the third one, and I’m hoping that Mandrake’s character arc will finish up in the third.

Review: City of Bones

City of Bones, by Cassandra Clare
7.5/10, a rockin’ YA urban fantasy adventure with sparkling characters

“The Very Secret Diary of Aragorn, son of Arathorn.
Day One:
Ringwraiths killed: 4. V. good.
Met up with Hobbits. Walked forty miles. Skinned a squirrel and ate it.
Still not King.”

Those were the first words I read by Cassandra Clare, part of the Very Secret Diaries of the Lord of the Rings characters that launched her into internet legend. She was in the process of writing an extensive Harry Potter fanfic, but took a break to poke fun at Tolkien’s cast. If the VSDs exposed the Internet to her sharp wit, the Draco trilogy showed her keen grasp of characters and story. Finally, she put those skills to use in her own story and her own world, and the result is the fun, thrilling “City of Bones.”

The book starts with Clary Fray and her friend Simon at a club, where Clary witnesses what she thinks is a murder. The problem is, the body disappears as soon as it’s killed, and Simon can’t see any of the perpetrators, who disappear with smirking arrogance. Of course, things get rapidly more exciting and more complicated: the “murdered” boy was actually a demon, his killers demon-slayers. Their world collides more violently with Clary’s, in an adventure that gets progressively more complicated and layered as it goes along, accumulating glamorous warlocks, sultry vampires, and fierce werewolves, not to mention the demon-slayers themselves, called Shadowhunters.

Clare’s prose is fun to read, never stalling or slowing. She has a nice touch with description and imagery, but her real strength is in her characters. Clary, Simon, and the Shadowhunters Jace, Alec, and Isabelle are fully realized, vibrant characters who engage you from the first time they appear. Clary’s mother, her friend Luke, the Shadowhunters’ teacher Hodge, the warlock Magnus Bane, all spring off the page in supporting roles, and it is the characters that make this story really special.

The only real quibble I have with the book is that the prose is sometimes a little too hip. The characters occasionally sacrifice realism for the bon mot, their wit all as sharp as their blades and drawn more often. However, given that I never watched “Buffy,” the closest thing to a touchstone for this genre, that’s probably all in keeping with the standards. Also, I am (conservatively) twenty years older than the target audience. Perhaps twenty-five.

That said, though, the slightly forced hipness doesn’t detract from the realism of the characters. They are teenagers, saying stupid things sometimes and uncannily wise things at other times. The dynamic between Clary, Simon, and Jace is extremely well played. And the story itself is quite engaging, with strong echoes of Harry Potter (the main villain is presumed to have been dead for some fifteen years, was at school with many of the people Clary meets, and you can feel the shadow of Hogwarts looming over Clare’s vague descriptions of the early school). This isn’t to say that the world or story feel derivative; I suspect it’s more an artifact of my knowing Clare’s appreciation of the Harry Potter series and being more apt to notice similarities. The trappings of her world are nicely detailed (the vampire hotel, the werewolf packs, the warlock’s party) and make for fun reading.

Overall, I had a great time reading this book. I have no qualms recommending it to anyone who enjoys “Buffy,” Harry Potter, or Holly Black, Clare’s friend and fellow author.