Cassandra Clare writes addictive and sexy YA full of plot twists and fab dialogue. ‘City of Bones’ was her debut, published in 2007. I just conducted a rough count, fragrant jasmine tea in one hand and 70% cocoa dark chocolate (four squares a night, please) in the other, and I think I can count 14 more books since then.
And a chocolate smear on my keyboard.
Clare is a writing machine, and I love her work.
So, what does she do to make her writing so clever? To make her into the mega-success she is? Today I focus on ‘City of Bones’, Book One of The Mortal Instruments series, as well as the first in The Infernal Devices prequel series: ‘Clockwork Angel‘. I found some recurring themes of awesomeness:
- Strong female leads and tortured love interests
- Easily accessible world
- Subtlety in voice.
The first point is so big in itself, I’m going to devote this entire post to it. And a Super-Supreme Spoiler warning on this one… seriously, if you want to read these series, don’t have me ruin the twists for you. Turn back now.
Kickass female leads and the boys that need them (but don’t know they do)
Proving the old adage that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, this is the premise behind the characters in both books. And it works. Here’s how:
Step 1: Don’t let your female lead cry.
She has to be tough-as. If she absolutely has to cry, she’s got to fight it first.
In ‘City of Bones’, p74, Clary rings father-figure Luke in desperation having had her mother abducted by a sadistic lunatic, getting stung in the back by an butt-ugly Ravener demon, and then finding out that somehow she’s a Shadowhunter, even though three days before she didn’t know anything about them. She wants to get out of the Institute and back to where she thinks she belongs. Luke basically tells her to rack off.
He’s doing it to protect her, but she doesn’t know that. This is serious stuff. This deserves a cry. If she didn’t cry, we couldn’t warm to her.
Clary looked away, knowing that if she opened her mouth, she’d start to cry.
This first reaction shows Clary is strong and stubborn and proud, and she needs to be all that to succeed in this new reality she’s found herself in. Although she fails to avoid the tears, she makes sure we know it doesn’t happen often:
Her cheeks were wet. She reached up to brush the tears away, blinking. “I don’t cry much usually,” she found herself saying. “It doesn’t mean anything. I’ll be all right in a minute.”
Let’s now look at Tessa. She escapes a hopeless mental slavery at the hands of the Dark Sisters only to wake up in the London Institute, deep in a shadow world she grew up completely unaware of (sound familiar?). Then she learns that Charlotte, head of the Institute, has read her very private ‘diary’ – p58.
The backs of her eyes stung; tears were threatening, and she willed them back, furious with herself, with everything.
Kick-ass lead characters don’t cry when you read their diary, so it’s right that Tessa doesn’t. And her control shows us, again, that she is made of strong stuff.
Step 2: Deeply scarred but super-hot Love Interests
Totally gorgeous and categorically damaged Love Interests that need saving… It all makes a romantic sub-plot so much more captivating.
In ‘City of Bones’, the ultra-sarcastic and wildly hot Jace has been physically and mentally tortured by his not-even-father-but-great-at-pretending Valentine. He’s learnt that (p193):
…to love is to destroy, and that to be loved is to be the one destroyed.
I know. Messed up. Clary will have her hands full convincing this one to fall in love with her. But she absolutely does.
Because she’s kick-ass strong and awesome. Of course.
And the heavenly Will in ‘Clockwork Angel’ has been tormenting himself ever since a pissed-off demon convinced him that anyone who loved him would pus up and rot from the inside out. Deep inside he’s a big sook, but he has to keep pretending to be awful to everyone except best friend Jem, who’s dying anyway.
Of course, valiant and brave Tessa destroys all his careful plans and pushes him to breaking point, simply because he falls in love with her. And she with him. So he has to double his attempts to be mean and nasty.
Which he does with style.
They both do, really, Clare’s tortured boy-minds. They may have dark pasts and heavy responsibilities, but that doesn’t stop them from having sparkling wit and dry humour. I love Clare’s books because they make me laugh and the characters are so vivid. Catch Will here, talking to Tessa’s useless not-actually-brother Nate (p355):
“So you’re a Shadowhunter,” Nate said. “De Quincey told me you lot were monsters.”
“Was that before or after he tried to eat you?” Will inquired.
If they weren’t so damn funny and didn’t have all those clues strewn through the text to show they were good deep-down, they wouldn’t be worth saving. They wouldn’t be good enough for Clary and Tessa.
Clare makes sure we know they are.
And through all this, our idea that Clary and Tessa are strong keeps intensifying. They are strong enough to break through the walls these boys put up.
Step 3: Mix it up with a second Love Interest to make us all question if we’ve picked the right boy
You know, there is nothing wrong with Simon. He’s cute, he’s sensitive, he’s a top shot with a bow and arrow. And he loves Clary.
We should want him and Clary to get together. She should realise she’s better off with him.
But we don’t. She does, but she can’t do anything to change how she feels.
Because Jace is there. Having Simon around shows us just how strong this inexplicable attraction to Jace is. It is the necessary foundation that makes us cling to Jace, even when we learn he’s actually her brother.
Eew. I know. I found that disturbing. Thank goodness it turned out to be just another patent-Valentine-lie later in the series, so the two of them could get it on to their heart’s content. Otherwise we, the readers, would have felt ripped off. Ripped off readers don’t buy the next book.
And Jem? He’s handsome, he’s caring, he can knock off multiple clockwork creatures with his cane. And he’s dying – doesn’t that make him just a teency bit damaged?
I suppose it does. But we still want Tessa to be with the intricate badboy Will first. Jem is perfect for Tessa when she’s had a hundred or so years to cool her heels. But at the wild age of sixteen? Will’s her man.
Wrapping it up
Love and romance are a big drawcard in the YA market. Why make it simple? Clare makes the reader, and the Main Character, agonise over it. And I applaud her for it.
But she also avoids that bad romance-novel cliche where the man has all the power and knowledge. Sure, Clare’s heroines are both newcomers to the Shadow world, but they’re strong and intelligent, they speak up for themselves and those they love.
Hmmm. My jasmine tea’s gone cold.