Monday, May 14, 2012

Review: City of Lost Souls, Book 5 of the Mortal Instruments Series

Jace and Sebastian have disappeared – and the Clave has started to reduce the hunt for them. They have other priorities and they just can’t dedicate any more resources to finding them.

Of course, Clary and her friends can’t leave it at that and can’t just let him go. They’re willing to search under every rock for him, leaving no stone unturned until they can find a way to both bring him back and free him from Sebastian’s control. It’s a quest that takes them to the secretive Iron Sisters, to summon mighty and fiercely terrifying demons and even call upon the Angels of heaven themselves and risk their furious wrath.

But, most heartbreaking of all is that Jace doesn’t seem to be unhappy where he is. Captive or willing accomplice seems to be in doubt. And if he is willing then what with clary & Co actually do? And are they willing to sacrifice him to stop Sebastian’s schemes? Or, if Jace trusts him, is there more to Sebastian than they have previously seen?

My first complaint of this book is, sadly, the writing. The series was always atrociously overwritten with a lot of severe Chekhov’s Junkshop issues, a lot of excess description and a great deal of unnecessary literary quotes.  This has always been a major barrier to my enjoyment of the series because it was so mired in pointless verbiage – it made Dickens seem concise. Now this book is much much better than previous books on that score. We have a lot less literary references, the dialogue is tighter, there’s less pointless description and less pointless tangents and maunderings.

Less. Unfortunately “less” here means I’m drowning in a sea rather than an ocean – it’s still overwritten and it’s still overdescriptive and the writing is still clumsy. In the first few chapters I could have started a drinking game based on how many times Clary felt “icy”. I nearly did start a drinking game based ion the number of times Alec’s hair and eye colour were described (they’re black and blue respectively, in case you’ve forgotten. An absolute impossibility if you read the book because they’re described at least twice every time Alec raises his black haired, blue eyed head) but was worried about the consequences of alcohol poisoning.

There were also moments of filler that were, frankly, bemusing. Jordan and Maia are giant filler characters for one – and I sat and gaped when, running to find a cure for Luke dying of demon poisoning, they decide to pull over and make out. Really?

Pacing was a problem. Clary is quickly separated from the group and spends much of the book following her own plan that doesn’t actually progress very quickly or in much detail – but we spend a lot of time on it to keep up with her emotional issues. Similarly we have a separate plot line with Simon that could be interesting but isn’t developed – so adds to the filler. And then we have the infuriating tangent with Alec sabotaging his relationship with Magnus – there’s a lot of pages written here that don’t advance the main plot or even their own plots significantly. It’s slow, has a lot of dead ends, a lot of irrelevance and takes a long time to actually get on with the plot. for huge amounts of the book all we have are people moping, people making out and people moping about wanting to make out with each other. This is like 2 thirds of the book.

I am actually immensely amused by how much people in this book refer to Clary as reckless, foolish and generally not one who makes the best decisions – it feels vaguely like Cassandra Clare re-read her old books and declared “no sensible person would do these things!” Oh and can someone please explain to me where Clary developed her epic fighting skills? Because she didn't get THAT much training

In some ways, Clary’s decision making is not nearly as bad as it was in previous books. But then, she doesn’t have much chance to make many decisions – she makes one (a horrendous, reckless and deeply foolish decision that Simon considers “suicidal” and is bludgeoned into helping her or she’ll plunge off and do it alone with no support) and keeping to that decision doesn’t really raise many more options. She can’t follow someone around and choose to do many other things. The sad thing is that doesn’t make Clary a better character – it merely means she’s more tolerable when her decision making is kept to a minimum; let’s not forget, the decisions she does make here are described as reckless, foolish and suicidal – and rightly so. They’re also frequently selfish and short-sighted, from leaving in the first place (including arguing that “it’s not fair” with her mother – what is she, 9?) to preventing Jace going to the Clave.

One thing I did like a lot about this book is the way Alec describes micro-aggressions he faces as a gay man in a homophobic society (even if that society keeps changing to fit the story needs, from virulently homophobic, to accepting, to “let’s just not talk about it”). The constant little heteronormative comments that are dehumanising and demeaning – it was really well done.

Unfortunately it misses that other micro-aggressions include reading books where even the most powerful and capable bisexual man is reduced to servant on call for their straight friends (and it’s extremely amusing in a kind of depressing manner that Simon even lampshades this “It’s a good thing we know the person who’s dating Magnus” yes because you’d be screwed if he weren’t your pet). Honestly, I was glad when Magnus declared at the end of the book that he was done being their pet warlock. Another pretty huge macro-aggression is having the straight couples find true love and happiness while the gay couple is crashing on big rocks of misery.

Yes the relationships bothered me a lot. Clary and Jace are passionate and dedicated, Jordan and Maia sweet and finding themselves, even Simon and Izzy are beginning to find their grounds while Alec and Magnus? Crashing and burning. Not only that, but while the others overcome relationship challenges based on the many problems they face, Alec and Magnus are on the rocky road entirely from self-sabotage.

And in the last review we spoke about comparing Simon’s vampirism with being gay – it wasn’t fun then and it isn’t fun when Izzy draws comparisons in this book either.

Ok, those complaints aside, I will say this book is a step up from City of Fallen Angels, though that’s not saying much because I truly was not a fan of that book. There is much more tension and a much stronger sense of epic forces that maintain their power and threat level. This feels more like a developed storyline rather than tacked on, poorly explained filler like the last book and we can see how Sebastian is actually a major threat in a long term, dramatic fashion. I can see a continuation of the old meta plot and an establishment of a new theme and new direction that should revitalise a storyline that was more than a little shaky in the last book.

And I will, again, praise the world setting. While Nephilim are becoming increasingly more popular in Urban Fantasy, Cassandra Clare has built a truly unique take on them. Her shadowhunters with their marks are not something I’ve seen anywhere else. Her society of Idris and the Clave is something I love reading about and her takes on the fae, demons, warlocks and even demons is original and fresh in a genre that so often seems to follow the same old patterns.

The storyline with the rogue Shadowhunters, the Downworlders playing their own game, the rigidity of the law, the interaction with angels etc is also a fascinating one. The meta-plot, now firmly back on track after book 4 (and with the Deus Ex Machinae firmly removed) and makes the books worth reading – I dislike the writing and the characters but the story and world is first rate and why I am still reading – it is worth reading for the story – though neither easy nor fun.

I also stress again that the writing in this book is better than the previous books (though the pacing is worse). It makes the same mistakes – the writing overdone, Clary has the decision making skills of a concussed fruit fly, but they’re all on a lesser scale than in previous books (other than Alec and Magnus. That was just awful).

That may seem like damning with faint praise, and it is – because all of these problems remain extreme barriers for me and being "less bad" is a terrible way to be "better".