Tuesday, June 25, 2013

City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare or What Makes a Good Series

City of Ashes (The Mortal Instruments Series #2)

I am currently reading The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare.  Reading this series led me to think about the different series I’ve read over the years, as a child and as an adult.  Looking at my reading history I found that most series could be described as what I would call static or dynamic.  In a static series there is no overall goal that once accomplished, will bring an end to the series.  Each entry in the series can stand completely on its own.  There’s no need to read what came before to get a character's back story because either it is an unimportant or it is succinctly summarized in each individual book.  The characters are clearly defined, sometimes rigidly so, but are not necessarily described in depth. 

Static books are comforting because you know what you’re getting into when you open to the first page.  The best examples of static series are the ones I read as a kid.  Nancy Drew and Sweet Valley High come to mind.  Many cozy mysteries might fall into this category as well – Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason or Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series, for example.  These types of books don’t always have great character development, but that’s okay because that’s not really why you read them.  The appeal of a static series is its formula, its non-changing (or little changing) characters, and knowing that in the end whatever problem presented itself in chapter one will be solved by the last page.  It is the ever inquisitive, mystery solving Nancy Drew, the good girl Elizabeth and her semi-bad (or what we might call to today mean girl) twin Jessica.  It is the always winning, stand up for the little guy no matter the odds, Perry Mason that attracts readers. 

A dynamic series has a definitive beginning and ending.  It pays to read the series in order.  The challenge for the author of a dynamic series is making the series as a whole cohesive, while also ensuring that each book can be read on its own.  Each book must have a unique story to tell.  At the same time, each book should further the overall series by having the characters grow and evolve and should move the overall plot forward, even if only incrementally.  Examples of series that do this well are J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.  (I might also include George R.R. Martin’s Fire and Ice series here as well, but with the caveat that I have only read the first two books in the series so far.)

I mostly prefer dynamic series now, though it occurred to me in writing this that although I don’t read as many static series anymore, I do watch them.  NCIS, NCIS: LA, basically most of the crime/cop shows currently on TV could all be described as static.  Again, it is formula that most appeals.

The worst series are those that fall into the valley between the static and dynamic camps.  Books that have the misfortune of falling into this valley are those that tend to be both weak on plot and on character development.  Some readers prefer one over the other.  I can read both, but need at least one of the two. 

City of Bones, the first book in The Mortal Instruments started off as a promising dynamic series, but the series stalled in City of Ashes.  The outlines of the characters were laid out in the first book, but they didn’t grow and evolve in the second.  Clary was still stubborn and shrill.  Jace was still a jerk.  Isabelle was still the pretty girl with the whip.  (By the way, why the whip?  Is this an homage to Wonder Woman and her lasso of truth?)  Making Alec gay and uncomfortable about it might have been an attempt to add depth to the character, but his point of view is never presented and labeling a character gay isn’t enough to add depth any more than making a character heterosexual would be.  There has to be more to his story.

In addition to the lack of growth among the characters, City of Ashes lacked a strong plot.  It was more or less a continuation of the “we have to defeat Valentine” theme, but there was no singular problem that needed to be resolved or accomplished in this book.  This is my biggest problem with City of Ashes.  I suppose one could argue that the soul-sword was meant to be the problem to be dealt with, but that seemed like an afterthought for much of the book.  With the exception of the inquisitor, and she is a relatively minor character, getting the sword never seemed to be at the top of anyone's to do list.  In this sense, the book lacked a certain energy.  There was lots of action – characters getting attacked by demons, fight scenes here and there, vehicles usually seen on streets driven in the air and on water – but it seemed liked characters were just dropped into one crisis after another.   There was never a coherent sense of “we have to do this thing and here’s how we’re going to do it.”  That’s what I mean by energy.  There was crisis after crisis and lots of action, and oh look, the soul-sword happens to be right here in arm’s reach, but no overall plan, no energy directed at a particular goal.

Despite my less than stellar response to City of Ashes, I'm going to read the next book in the series, City of Glass, in part because I borrowed the first three books from the library at the same time and feel compelled to finish at least these three. I have a hard time not finishing books.  Plus I liked the first book enough to give the third book in the series a shot.  Bones was a good start.  Ashes fell short, but I’m hoping Glass picks up the torch and runs with it.

One other last thought - I really like the cover of this book, particularly the flaming red hair against the gray/blue background.  I also like the covers of Bones and Glass.  That being said, I'm not sure captures the the book that well.  Clary doesn't yet strike me as the powerful woman shown on the cover.

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