3 Reasons Why The Mortal Instruments Series Has Been a New York Times Bestseller for 2 Years (And Why the Movie Failed)

City of Bones Book CoverWhen my sister clamored to see The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones last month, I was skeptical. I wasn’t raring to see yet another bestselling YA series turned money-making movie franchise in the vein of Harry Potter (2001-2011), Lord of the Rings (2001-2003), Twilight (2008-2012), The Hobbit (2012-2014), Hunger Games (2012- ), and the upcoming Divergent (2014- ) series. It’s not that I don’t love YA, or even Fantasy. Like many, I am weary—and wary—of vampires and werewolves.

What eventually sold me was staring at City of Bones stars Godfrey Gao

Godfrey Gao and Cat

and Kevin Zegers, Kevin Zegers

who I still remember for his poignant, award-winning turn as the male prostitute son of a male-to-female transsexual in the hit Oscar-nominated indie Transamerica (2005).

But there’s only so far beautiful Canadian actor-models can take you, and the movie is proof that pretty ain’t enough. Still, my sister convinced me to try the books, saying how humorous they were.

And…she was right.

Here are 3 reasons why I enjoyed City of Bones, and why I will—despite its flaws—read City of Ashes, though Hollywood has delayed (and perhaps even cancelled) adapting the sequel:

1.       The Characters

Simon, Jace, and Magnus Bane.

This was a huge win on Cassandra Clare’s part. Though I’m not captivated by 15-year-old Clary Fray discovering the connection between the Shadowhunters, a secret group of demon-killing Nephilim, and the disappearance of her mother, Clare hooked me with her portrayal of these three characters:

Simon LewisSimon Lewis: The witty BFF who’s always got your back—the type of guy who will explain what Clary calls “the ‘hey’ thing.” As he puts it:

“‘Hello’ is girly. Real men are terse. Laconic. That’s why when major badasses greet each other in movies, they don’t say anything, they nod. The nod means, ‘I am a badass, and I recognize that you, too, are a badass.’”

Jace WaylandJace Wayland: The sarcastic love interest with mad demon-hunting skillz and the requisite tragic backstory. Clare’s smartest move was making him a smartass, instead of your classic stoic romantic:

Jace’s eyebrows went up. “Is that a copy of the Gray Book?”

“It’s not gray,” Clary felt compelled to point out. “It’s green.”

“If there was such a thing as terminal literalism, you’d have died of it in childhood.”

Magnus BaneMagnus Bane: a huge fan fave, scenes with Magnus had me laughing out loud. Described in the book as “part Asian,” the Taiwanese-born Canadian is beautiful enough to be Louis Vuitton’s first Asian male model, yet he nonetheless suffered racist backlash once Clare announced he’d been cast as Magnus the summer of 2012. Gao, whose mother is Peranakan Malaysian and whose father is Shanghainese, was an ideal fit for the flamboyant High Warlock of Brooklyn, whose character actually says it best:

“Move it along, teenagers. The only person who gets to canoodle in my bedroom is my magnificent self.”

2.       The Dialogue

“What makes the book fun is the witty banter between the characters,” my sister said as we left the theater. Definitely missing from a movie that took itself waaay too seriously, I agreed after reading a scene in which the fearless Jace suggests asking the Silent Brothers, a powerful all-male group of Shadowhunters, to help them:

“You hate the Silent Brothers,” protested Isabelle.

“I don’t hate them,” said Jace candidly. “I’m afraid of them. It’s not the same thing.”

“I thought you said they were librarians,” said Clary.

“They are librarians.”

Simon whistled. “Those must be some killer late fees.”

3.       The Love Triangle (Er, Rather…Square)

One can argue every story’s gotta have one. All action aside, that’s what makes Twilight Twilight. But here, Clary is clearly worried about her family, and romantic entanglements do play a realistic, secondary role to that. What I also appreciate about Clare’s rendition in City of Bones is that she complicates the classic trope with a fourth party, and directly tackles the perils of feigning ignorance when it comes to another person’s feelings—or one’s own. As the character Hodge, Jace’s mentor, notes:

“Where there is feeling that is not requited there is an imbalance of power. It is an imbalance that is easy to exploit, but is not a wise course. Where there is love, there is often also hate. They can exist side by side.”

The Book
If City of Bones reads like fanfiction, it’s because Cassandra Clare gained an audience writing Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings fanfiction as Cassandra Claire. Both actually operate as the pen name of 40-year-old Judith Rumelt, who might have had a harder time selling herself to a teen audience with her actual name and age. (It’s all about the marketing, people.)

While I’ll be the first to admit City of Bones is not high art, it is a delightful, page-turning romp, and that is what I have always loved about young adult lit: people crave story, and there is something wonderful, and indeed, essential, about satisfying that desire.

Sure, there are moments when the prose takes me out of the story, like when Simon tells Clary their friend is reading poetry at Java Jones, “a coffee shop around the corner from Clary’s that sometimes had live music at night.” This explanation, clearly implied, is so excessive I wish it had been deleted. I also groaned when Clare takes us into the mind of a demon, a description which reads too stereotypically for my taste:

“They didn’t know how lucky they were. They didn’t know what it was like to eke out life in a dead world, where the sun hung limp in the sky like a burned cinder. Their lives as burned as brightly as candle flames—and were as easy to snuff out.”

I also feel Jace’s best friend Alec Lightwood (played with surprising stiffness by Kevin Zegers), could’ve enjoyed a less stereotypical storyline as a closeted Shadowhunter.

The Movie
The reason why the book has stayed so popular is exactly why the movie franchise’s future is uncertain: it missed all of what made the books so delightful. In a word, the series is fun. The movie isn’t. While Irish actor Robert Sheehan nailed the earnest, wisecracking Simon, making him an instant favorite before I read the book, and Godfrey Gao was every inch the sexy cat-eyed man, English actor, singer, and former model Jamie Campbell Bower turned the smug, sarcastic Jace into a boring, brooding emo man. I haven’t seen enough of Bower’s work to decide if it’s him or Norwegian filmmaker Harald Zwart’s direction that caused the character to careen off course, but the film kept missing the mark and has caused postponement of a sequel, due to poor reviews and low box office numbers.

No worries. I’m not holding my breath for the second movie, but heading to my local library to reserve City of Ashes.

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