Thursday, February 21, 2013


The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones by Cassandra Clare, 2007

In the wake of the phenomenally popular Harry Potter series (followed by the similar successes of the Twilight books and The Hunger Games trilogy), imitators have popped up everywhere. The young-adult market is totally flooded with thick fantasy sagas hoping to be the next massive success. Obviously, a lot of them are good books in their own right, and a lot of them are derivative copies of whatever is working in the genre. City of Bones, the first volume in the Mortal Instruments series, starts out as one of these, and over the course of the novel, turns into something else.

For someone like me (who has read a lot of this kind of thing over the years), the first few chapters of City of Bones are agreeable enough, but awfully familiar: a normal teenage girl, smart and mildly geeky without being aware of her own beauty, stumbles onto a strange world hidden just beneath the surface of her own. Turns out that there are monsters, demons, vampires, werewolves and warlocks living in NYC, concealed from ordinary humans by magic. There are, of course, huge secrets in the protagonist's home life, an arch-villain thought long dead, and, perhaps most importantly, a sexy, sarcastic demon hunter named Jace to serve as a love interest.

To say that Bones starts out as a cookie-cutter Potter clone is almost an understatement. The three most obvious influences on the novel are the Harry Potter books (style, story structure, world-building), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (dialogue, characterizations, supernatural concepts) and the Twilight saga (breathless romance, writing style). At times, the book's opening chapters feel like such a hodge-podge that there's little room for any kind of originality. Thankfully, once past the standard "call to adventure" segments, the book starts to get really, really fun.

You can tell that Clare is eager to get into the meat of the story, and for all that it's a little derivative, it's a solid one. Bit by bit, she fleshes out her fictional universe, which gets more interesting and unusual as the mythology develops. The concept of the Shadowhunters is actually fairly original, and the way she ties in various different myths and legends from all over the world is impressive. There is a lot of exposition in the book, some of it on the clunky side, but I enjoyed it anyway. Clare is not a great writer or anything; she got her start in Internet fan fiction (not that writing fan fiction is bad or uncreative), and it shows in her style: overuse of adverbs, plentiful, awkward similes, lots of clichés and near-clichés. Her secret weapon is her dialogue, which is usually snappy and fun, with a Joss Whedon-y flair for quirky humor.

Her characterizations overall are good. Clary is your standard YA heroine, although she gains a little dimension towards the end of the book. She's not irritating to read about (except when she conveniently forgets that her mother is being held hostage by an evil warlord), which is pretty much all that I ask. The other two points of the central love triangle are way more interesting. Jace is definitely the most well-realized character in the book; while some parts of his personality seem cliché, he's actually quite well-rounded--and genuinely funny, too. Simon, Clary's best friend, is not just the fifth wheel to Clary and Jace's budding romance, but a real character in his own right. The supporting cast, while not especially colorful, are a pretty well-developed bunch, too, with intriguing little internal conflicts of their own. The Big Bad, Valentine, is something of a let-down, though. When he finally shows up, he's your standard mustache-twirling Magnificent Bastard;

The plot is not especially creative (in fact, it's standard), but the pacing is lightning-quick and once past the halfway mark, the action comes fast and furious. By the end, a surprising amount of tension has been created. The climax is more a set-up for the rest of the series than a proper ending, but it's still tremendously entertaining, with a twist that I found genuinely shocking. Sure, the next book will probably find a way around it, but that doesn't diminish the immediate impact. Overall, I enjoyed the book more than I expected to. It's a fairly typical piece of post-Potter YA fantasy with just enough originality and verve to make it worthwhile. And I'd be lying if I said I wasn't looking forward to the next volume.

Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay, 2006

Serial killers are bad. I think everybody pretty much agrees about that. The dastardly, mass-murdering psychopath is one of the classic fictional archetypes, and there are few permutations of the character, even in today's literature. Until I read Darkly Dreaming Dexter, I assumed it would pretty impossible to have a psychopath as the hero of a series of mystery novels. Certainly not a likable one.

Well, I was wrong about that. Dexter Morgan, the charming, wry narrator of the novel, is definitely one of the most unique protagonists I've ever read about. On the surface, he seems like a normal, affable guy. He works as a blood-spatter analyst in Miami, he's close with his foul-mouthed sister, Deb, he has a sweet relationship with his long-term girlfriend. But he's also a serial killer who spends his free time tracking down victims and chopping them up.

The masterstroke on Jeff Lindsay's part is this: Dexter has a code, instilled in him by his foster father, Harry. He only kills bad people, like rapists, pedophiles and other serial killers. Now, this doesn't mean he's a dogged vigilante, trying to rid the world of evil. Far from it. He's not much different from the people he kills. He's a true psychopath who loves murdering others and gets great pleasure from stalking his prey and then torturing them to death. Yet his deadpan humor, dry self-awareness and odd flashes of humanity make him bizarrely likable, even sympathetic. Dexter's narration is ingenious: funny, chilling, subtly off-kilter. There are sentences that elicit both a chuckle and a shudder, moments where I was torn between rooting for Dexter and hoping that he gets caught.

The book's main plot concerns a copycat serial killer operating in Miami who seems to be leaving clues specifically for Dexter. As the cops close in, Dexter is torn between helping his sister Deb solve the case and finding the killer himself so he can join in the fun. As good as the title character is, the book's actual story is a little thin. The mystery is straightforward and kind of dull, right up until the end, when it really starts to pick up steam. I'm not gonna lie, the climax is some fine white-knuckle tension, and very nicely structured around the question of just how much humanity Dexter has in him. That said, the identity of the Ice Truck Killer is more than a little far-fetched, and the use of prophetic dreams to push the plot along is overdone.

As is often the case with books as protagonist-centered as Dexter, the supporting characters are not especially interesting. Deb is the most developed, and while I liked her well enough, she's pretty two-dimensional. Lindsay is good at describing a character in an interesting way - LaGuerta is beautiful, ambitious and stupid, Doakes is obsessed with justice and suspicious of Dexter - but then doesn't really follow up with any kind of development. This is Dexter's novel; pretty much all of the story's conflict and color comes from his own internal narrative. Dexter's lack of analytical ability when it comes to "normal humans" would probably make it difficult to have a three-dimensional supporting cast anyway.

Despite the less-than-top-notch plotting and a supporting cast that didn't do much for me, there's no doubt that Dexter is an effective thriller, both hair-raising and thought-provoking. Dexter himself is one of the most striking and memorable protagonists in a long time. Is it wrong to root for him? Is he truly a monster, like he himself thinks, or is there a decent human being somewhere inside him? The novel never tells us outright (although there are some strong hints), which just makes the mystery more fascinating.

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