Friday, April 26, 2013


City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare, 2008

I pretty much enjoyed City of Bones, the first novel in the popular Mortal Instruments series, despite some pretty glaring flaws and some underwhelming prose. It was a fast, entertaining read - typical YA urban fantasy, but just original enough to keep your interest.

The sequel, City of Ashes, picks up where the first book left off: Clary and Jace are horrified to discover that they are in fact siblings, despite their strong mutual attraction. While they struggle with their difficult relationship – and a hard-nosed Shadowhunter investigator known as the Inquisitor – their wicked father Valentine gathers a demonic army and prepares for an all-out war with the Shadowhunters.

The fact is, there are a lot of problems with this book. A lot. Perhaps my biggest complaint is that the pacing is surprisingly poor. Whatever else you could say about it, City of Bones at least moved at a good clip. As soon as you tired of what was going on, there would be an action scene, or a plot twist, or something to grab your interest. There are long stretches of City of Ashes that are just plain boring (and this is not a typical gripe of mine - I have a long attention span). The story is not nearly as intricate as the previous book's; nor does it rely much on backstory or character development. It's a very straightforward supernatural narrative that plays out like an episode of Buffy or Supernatural stretched out to novel-length. Valentine has a – relatively simple – evil plan, which he. . . implements. Not a lot of complexity there.

What's really infuriating about the plot (for me, anyway) is that none of our heroes seem very proactive about hunting down the Big Bad and putting a stop to his fiendish designs, at least not until the climax. In time-honored YA tradition, the adults and authority figures are utterly useless, and waste all their time being nasty to the kids, when they should be out doing something useful. Unlike a Harry Potter novel, there's no real mystery going on; it just seems like the characters are too self-absorbed to put two and two together.

So for most of the book, we get a ton of character interaction, which is. . . a mixed bag. Clare has really only written two genuinely three-dimensional characters: Jace and Simon, both of whom get quite a lot to do in Ashes. Jace spends most of the book angsting, torn between the Clave and his newfound father. Not to mention his conflicting feelings about Clary. Clare deserves credit for using an extremely tricky concept - incestuous feelings - as the framework of her story, but she doesn't handle it especially well and you know that she'll eventually use an easy out to deal with the situation.

Simon, in what is arguably the novel's most interesting plot thread, goes from being the regular guy to becoming a powerful and blood-hungry vampire. Since Clare is far from a marvelous writer, neither Jace's nor Simon's character arcs is incredibly well-done, but they're both competent, and decent enough to hold your interest. I dig Magnus Bane, the smart-aleck, bisexual warlock, too; he brings a welcome sense of color to the cast, even if his romance with Alec is oddly handled.

On the other hand we have Clary, ostensibly the protagonist, who is a truly dull and tiresome character. She has very little personality and not much of an arc, and yet the rest of the characters are all obsessed with her. Textbook Mary Sue, in other words. Although she does develop an unusual power - which is, full disclosure, pretty cool - she spends most of the novel be so useless. The supporting cast is okay for the most part; just kind of same-y. Characters like the grandiose Valentine or the (seemingly) malevolent Inquisitor should jump off the page, but instead they come across as fairly flat copies of more interesting characters in more interesting books.

Clare's writing is still readable enough, I suppose, in a crappy kind of way. The constant stream of overblown similes and metaphors is grating - by the end of the book, I was gritting my teeth every time I came across one. She uses all the clich├ęs you can think of: dopey adverbs, over-the-top descriptions of things like eyes and sunsets and light, emotions described as physical sensations, generally in the stomach, heart or throat. The one big bright spot in her writing is her one-liners. I'm not gonna lie: the woman can write verbal humor very well. A lot of the character's lines are laugh-out-loud funny or close, especially Jace and Magnus. I just wish the rest of her writing was as good as her quips.

The climax, which is a big faux-Harry Potter finale complete with a huge battle and numerous dramatic revelations, is definitely the most entertaining part of the book; it's a mess, but there's so many rampaging demons and operatic confrontations that it's at least really fun to read. It almost made the long slog of the novel's bloated second act worth it. Almost. Honestly, if I didn't already own the next two books in the series, I might not have bothered seeking them out. Since I do have them, I will probably read them. I can only hope that City of Glass is a step up from this one.

61 Hours by Lee Child, 2010

Honestly, Lee Child is so good it's almost boring. While I could rank his Jack Reacher novels in some semblance of best-to-worst (at least, what I think are best-to-worst), but there's no denying that I've never read a bad Reacher novel, or even a truly weak Reacher novel. 61 Hours is another gem, a finely honed thriller by a man who seems incapable of writing a bad novel. Sure, the series pretty much always follows a clear formula, but it's a formula that I happen to adore, so if it ain't broke, why fix it?

Hours finds our hero onboard a tour bus when it crashes in a small town deep in the frigid South Dakota winter. Reacher quickly finds out that sleepy little Bolton is in the middle of a crisis: a respected local woman, the key witness in an upcoming trial, is being targeted for assassination by a group of methamphetamine-peddling bikers. Reacher naturally can't resist helping out, but unbeknownst to him, a criminal mastermind is coming to town and Reacher has only sixty-one hours before something very big goes down.

61 Hours is fairly conventional in terms of plot. The small town, the criminal organization, quirky villain, local cops, military connection, etcetera. It's fairly standard for Child at this point, but he's so confident and his storytelling are so finely honed that the boilerplate nature of the story didn't really bother me. The novel is a bit of a slow burn for a Reacher book - not much action until the climax, a lot of rising tension during the middle section There are the requisite twists and turns, but most of them are fairly predictable, by Child standards. The two things that really set it apart from the pack are the ticking-clock set-up and the weather.

The ticking-clock thing was fine (I neither loved nor hated it, and while I don't think it added a ton to the book, it didn't annoy me either), but the weather descriptions were kind of fantastic. Child makes the elements - in this case, unbelievable cold - a real character in the story. This is a book that truly makes you shiver while you read it, and the weather serves a real function in the plot, as it brings Reacher down to earth a little bit. He may be superhuman, but even he can't do much against minus-thirty temperatures. Child's hard-bitten prose is more than up to the challenge of describing the frigid South Dakota environment. As always, he nails the little details that make it convincing.

One of my stock complaints about the Reacher series is that the supporting characters are often flat and lifeless. While that is still somewhat the case here, Reacher has some great interactions in 61 Hours. There's a lot of Child's incredibly subtle character development going on here; Reacher is confronted with not one, but two people who can see through his veneer of unflappable competency. There's one phone conversation late in the book that might be Reacher at his most vulnerable. And hey, I actually enjoyed the Obligatory Love Interest, and I kind of hope she shows up again. The villain, a calculating ,diminutive drug lord nicknamed Plato, is a lot of fun, too. I'm an avowed fan of over-the-top Reacher villains, and Plato is definitely that. His final confrontation with Reacher is awesomely creative and deliciously nutty.

That actually applies to the climax as a whole, too, which might be the biggest-scale conclusion that Child has dreamed up yet (if not the most thrilling). I loved the fact that we got an honest-to-God cliffhanger that seems to offer up the possibility of Reacher's demise. While I know that he's not dead (two more books in the series have been released) Child sells it straight-facedly enough to make it work. I look forward to seeing how Reacher got out of a dilemma that Wile. E Coyote would have a hard time surviving. Maybe a refrigerator?

Complaints? Well, there's the supporting character thing (I just wish they were more colorful, that's all!). And the fact that were some noticeably far-fetched contrivances in the plot, even more so than usual, as well as some time-wasting detours that are obviously just there to fill up space, or provide a phony, end-of-chapter cliffhanger. In Reacher novels with busier stories, this is rarely an issue. Overall, though, 61 Hours is just another awesome entry in an increasingly awesome series. Not, perhaps, my favorite, or even in the very highest echelon, but it does carry the distinction of being the Reacher novel that has made me shiver the most.

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