Formulaic Success: City of Bones Review

Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones is in some ways the exact opposite of Throne of Glass.  That’s not to say it’s not fun—it is—but rather that it’s carefully structured and paced, yet somehow feels less special.

This cover basically lets you know exactly what you’re getting.

Despite reading up on the Nephilim, I was entirely unaware that another popular YA author had already used them as series superheroes, and only learned it in the process of getting the cover for The Nephilim Protocol. This summer, I decided it’d be good to familiarize myself with the series.

Cass is the rebellious daughter of a single mom whose mysterious father died years ago (obvious setup). Her nerdy good-hearted “friend” (obvious love interest) Simon invites her for a night out of dancing, where Cass sees three people killing a vampire—only no one else can see them. One of them, a dark but charming boy (obvious second love interest), later introduces himself as a Nephilim–though here the term means not a half-angel, but rather a sort of magical supersoldier, created by drinking from a special cup—a cup that a xenophobic fanatic once tried to use for mass genocide. Fortunately he’s totally gone now, no need to worry about him, oh whoop Cass’s mother disappears, Cass meets a dark but charming Nephilim boy, oh, now Simon is starting to confess feelings, etc, etc.

You get the idea.

Love Triangles have been a thing since Gwenevere and Lancelot, honestly.

It feels in places that Clare has looked up a YA-Bookwriting-kit and filled in the blanks to create her story. There’s the hidden magical world, the bad-boy, good-guy love triangle, the “you’re secretly very special” revelation, the absent parent. Some of the twists are so obvious, you can see them coming from half the book away. There are other, much more surprising ones, that genuinely do knock you for a loop—though nothing particularly earth-shattering.

City of Bones certainly has a lot of predictable elements, but there’s nothing bad about that by itself. I’ve grown to appreciate that it’s not always what happens in a story, so much as how it happens. There’s plenty of examples of predictable plot twists that were made iconic by virtue of how well they were pulled off—and other examples of genuinely surprising twists that fell flat because they were never communicated properly.  There’s a study that even people who say they prefer not to know spoilers will actually enjoy a story more if they already know where it’s going. (Though I still resent that student of mine who spoiled the ending of Infinity War).

Though, to reinforce my earlier point, knowing how it was going to end didn’t make the end any less impactful. Peter Parker’s scene is no surprise, but it’s how the scene goes that really leaves an impact.

And what’s undeniable is that the book is well-structured. Everything is properly foreshadowed, and the lore is fed to you in digestible chunks. The pacing works well, different plotlines weave in an out of each other like clockwork, and there’s very little time for anything to get boring. I read the book in large chunks, as it was hard to put down once I got started.

Once I put it down, though, there was little incentive to pick it back up.

The simple fact is that while City of Bones is precisely crafted and entertaining, there’s no chance of seeing it as anything either than a commercially appealing cash grab.  I never had the sense that I was reading anything particularly special, or even that the writer themselves had thought the book anything special. 

It’s hard to define how this comes through (and as in all things, there’s a strong chance that it depends on the reader’s bias). Perhaps it’s that the work is a little too precisely crafted, that there’s really nothing that it spends just a little extra time dwelling lovingly over.  Maybe it’s that many of the story beats are there simply to be there, like the elder who complains about the young protaganist’s “moral absolutism” when she expresses horror about a literally genocidal plan. Maybe it’s just how little fat is in the book, how most elements are there solely for the individual story. 

Maybe it’s just an inability to convey emotion well. The protagonist has a story tailor-made for emotional reaction—the loss of a parent who formerly they viewed as controlling. It’s the sort of universally relatable stuff that ought to tug at the heartstrings.

But it really… doesn’t. We constantly hear about the girl’s worry over her mother, she constantly talks about it, it’s always there in the back of her mind… but it exists solely as an abstract. It’s a story beat, a fill-in-the-blank motive.

Like John Wick’s dog, though I have to say I felt more convinced of John’s pain than I did of Cass’s.

Let me be clear.  I have the deepest respect for successful authors like Cassandra Clare, James Patterson, Dean Koontz, John Grisham. I don’t consider them great authors, but there is much to appreciate about a writer who can consistently and repeatedly churn out popular material, even if the authorings are not terribly original or inspirational.  They’re not artists, but they are skilled craftsmen, and in some ways their work gives a good view of the purely technical aspect of writing.

But contrast this with Sarah J. Maas Throne of Glass, which as I pointed out, suffers from poor pacing and structure, but is also a lot of fun. For all of its flaws, Throne of Glass feels personal in a way that City of Bones simply doesn’t. City of Bones is easier to believe in, with characters and scenarios less contrived than in Throne of Glass, and in some ways it’s more entertaining. But I’d be more likely to read further in the Throne of Glass series than I would the City of Bones series.

Let me draw an analogy—The Rise of Skywalker. Now Rise of Skywalker was far, far from well crafted. There were continuity issues, flat moments, ridiculous motives, and questions with simply no follow-up.  But in terms of a fan-pleasing film, it hit all the right notes.  There were big dramatic lightsaber duels.  There were old actor cameos and references to key bits of fan lore.  Old legends returned and major problems people had with the first two films were addressed. There was the last-second arrival of the calvary.  Huge stakes, personal drama, romance!

Somewhere in the middle of the final battle, though, it hit me. It was a paint-by-numbers Star Wars movie. It was in many ways the most soul-less of the Star Wars movies, built almost according to a formula. It even had a stereotypical Disney moral foregrounded in the action—usually a good unifying device, but utterly out of tune with Star Wars, where moral lessons take a back seat to the universe’s fictitious history.

Disney more or less treats Star Wars as a giant cartoon, which lends itself to some beautiful images but also some pretty flat storytelling.

By contrast, if you ever go back and try to watch A New Hope impartially, you’ll realize it’s actually a pretty terrible movie.  The dialogue is corny, the acting (with the exception of Harrison Ford and Alec Guinness) is flat, the plot is all over the place.  But it’s fun. You want to imagine yourself in that world. A New Hope makes you believe for a few hours that you’re really in a galaxy far, far away.  Rise of Skywalker reminds you that you’re just watching a Hollywood blockbuster.

Even I, though, will admit that this scene is perfect.

City of Bones is not anywhere near as bad—or as soul-less—as Rise of Skywalker. It’s an entertaining romp with fun characters with identifiable motives. But it also isn’t as fresh, as flawed, or as personal as A New Hope. I doubt it will ever be remembered as anything other than a popular novel that rode the wave of “female protagonist in a supernatural world” tide.

As for me, I’m just relieved that its vision of Nephilim is nowhere near my own, so I don’t have to worry about copyright claims or complaints about a lack of originality. Although considering Clare’s success, maybe I should take a few more pages from her book.

ANNOUNCEMENT!

The Hospitaller Oath is coming out soon! Currently the plan is to publish at the end of August, though re-writes may push that back to the middle of September like it did last year! Enjoy this teaser!

Cover Credit to RockingBookCovers

            The ice flies under my feet. On the horizon I see far-off buildings—no, just really small buildings, half buried in the snow.  Even as I race toward them, explosions rip outwards, smashing five or six of them apart in burst of white splinters. As I get closer, I can see small figures moving around the town’s radio tower. It’s about the only thing left standing.

            I can also see who’s responsible. All sort of figures in red-and-black gear, darting in and out between the buildings.  I can hear sharp cracks on the frozen air, and even as I’m watching I see one of them seem to throw something before another building explodes apart. One of them open up with a machine gun on a burly man who comes running out of a building.  I’m close enough now to see red stuff spitting out the back of the man as his body jerks apart, caught in the spray of gunfire.

            I should be afraid, probably.  Nephilim like me have a lot of abilities—super-strength, speed, enhanced vision—including recovering from wounds.  But we still can get hurt.  Getting shot hurts a lot. I know this from experience. 

Still, seeing this carnage, there’s no terror.

            Rage.

            Nephilim have all sorts of abilities, but each one has unique semi-magical powers—Aptitudes, Dr. Schaeffer called them.  He could heal people.  My old friend Sidewinder could zap people with lightning powers. Destro can manipulate electronics.

            Me?  I’ve got a more… aggressive Aptitude.

Swords burst out of my hands, ripping through the gloves, as I come running toward the outskirts of the village.  The guy who shot the burly man is checking his body.  He looks up, wide-eyed, just as I come down slashing. A red gash opens up across his face and he goes down, screaming.

Another soldier sees me and slaps the shoulder of the guy next to him.  There’s about four or five of them that turn to face me.  But they’re just kind of staring.  I think they’re trying to figure out what’s going on with the swords.

I turn, and they wake up, bringing up their guns in a desperate scramble.

Oh shit!

If I were smart, I’d probably jump for cover or something, but my brain’s running on instinct, and for some reason I decide to jump straight at the homicidal mercenaries with the automatic weapons.  Bullets punch into me.

Ow. Ow. Ow.

These guys must really be freaked out.  Their shots are going all over the place, even if I’m soaking up enough to knock me way off balance. I practically fall into them—luckily with enough momentum to send them all crashing down, guns flying.  One tries to jump back up—he nearly gets me.  Fortunately when he’s within three feet my training kicks in and I give him an elbow to the stomach, knocking him over again.  This time I make sure he won’t be getting back up.

One thing to be thankful to Coach for.  She taught us Nephilim how to fight just fine.

I take a moment.  Something’s wrong with the parka I’m wearing.  It feels awfully small.  Is this Destro’s? Did Coach put Destro’s parka on me for some reason?  Already it’s split apart at the seams in a few places.

There’s still a lot of staccato sounds, mostly from the street.  No idea why my Nephilic Rot hasn’t kicked in yet.  Probably shouldn’t keep this up—it could knock me out at any minute.

Also, why am I not freaked out?  I mean, I sort of am. I got shot like four or five times back there. My hearts pounding at like 90 miles a minute, I’m panting like a dog, and a part of me is screaming apeshit. 

But it’s a distant part.  The rest of me feels like a tightly coiled spring, just waiting for something to jump out at something.  And honestly, that’s more freaky. I mean, I’ve done some fighting—I’ve even been shot at before—but I’m in a headspace I don’t even recognize right now.

Maybe I’m a psychopath?

More screams.  I grit my teeth and run for the street.


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