Sometimes I remember that Cassie Clare exists and that she can be relied upon to turn out reams of entertaining fluff. The book is on loan from my fifteen-year-old sister, who is a huge fan – she owns the “Mortal Instruments” series as well as the “Infernal Devices,” of which this is Book 1. It’s set in the same universe, populated by Shadowhunters, Downworlders and Mundanes (ie. ordinary nonmagical people), during the Victorian age. There are lots of quotes from Romantic poets, which is probably supposed to be atmospheric but in fact just feels cumbersome. That’s because no matter how good a job Clare does describing the era’s fashion, architecture, etc. – and I am willing to admit she does a fine job – the main characters read like modern teenagers transplanted into a gaslamp fantasy.
Clockwork Angel is the story of Tessa Grey, a penniless American orphan newly arrived in England. She expects to be met at the docks by her brother, except she’s abducted by a pair of sinister hags instead. Tessa is informed that her brother is a hostage and that she herself possesses magical abilities. Eventually she’s rescued by a pair of Shadowhunters, Will Herondale and Jem Carstairs, who (by coincidence) break into the house where she’s being held captive. Well color me surprised it’s a love triangle. That took all of ten minutes. Anyway my thoughts in bullet point form, because I’m too lazy to organize them:
- I like Tessa because she’s a bookworm like me. An example of her internal monologue: “According to novels, the main function of a ladies’ maid was to listen to you as you poured your heart out about your tragic love life, and occasionally to dress in your clothes and pretend to be you so you could avid being captured by a villain.” Which is pretty accurate actually.
- Tessa’s special ability is some combination of psychometry and shape-shifting, a two-for-one deal where she can assume the physical form of any individual (living or dead) provided she comes into contact with a personal artifact belonging to them. When she assumes their form, she also has access to their instincts and surface thoughts, though it’s not clear how exactly this works. So here’s the thing: I remember when I was reading Animorphs, a children’s series targeted at a middle-grade audience, that there were weighty ethical quandaries associated with morphing human subjects. Here we have a young adult book presumably written for an older, more reflective audience, and the issue isn’t even broached? It’s a puzzling omission, or maybe a telling one.
- Does the entire fandom just sit around shipping Will and Jem all day long? If not, why not? Because that’s sure as hell what I’ll be doing for the remainder of this series. I think I’m supposed to. I find it hard to believe that Cassie Clare – Cassie fucking Claire, of Draco trilogy fame – could have been unaware of what she was doing when she paired up two attractive white boys and made them brothers in arms. (Yes Jem is half-Chinese; so what. I am going to delcare on my authority as a Chinese person that this is some exoticizing bullshit.) Will is reckless and insolent and a lethal fighter; Jem is steady and sensitive and has a chronic medical condition. Will is forever mocking everyone with acerbic remarks that drive them up the wall, but Tessa notes that “Whatever Will did, the most extreme reaction he seemed to be able to provoke in Jem was mild exasperation.” Then you get to the part where Jem explains what they are to each other: “‘Parabati in Greek is just a term for a soldier paired with a chariot driver,’ said Jem, ‘but when Nephilim say it we mean a matched team of warriors – two men who swear to protect each other and guard each other’s backs.’” Did she really just reference the well-known homosocial culture of ancient Greece? At this point Cassie Clare is just straight-up queerbaiting.
- Whatever else you might say about her, Cassie Clare never fails to nail the sexual tension. That scene between Will and Tessa with the gloveporn? Holy mother of god so hot. He’s lying in bed recovering from a vampire bite, and when she brings him water he takes her hand and kisses it and peels her glove off. That’s it that’s the scene. The part where they kiss on the mouth (Tessa’s first kiss) is almost an afterthought?
- One thing I don’t get: The novel’s Big Bad, the Magister, has nefarious plans for Tessa including but not limited to marrying her. Here’s a quote: “It looks like you weren’t the only thing in the Dark Sisters’ house that was being prepared for the Magister’s use. These clockwork creatures were as well.” First of all, I don’t know if by invoking the sexual connotations of the word “use” this line is hinting at the threat of rape, but no thank you, Do Not Want. What’s interesting, though, is that it contrasts the Magister’s biomechanical automaton abominations with the perfectly natural, organic magic of Shadowhunters (who are descended from angels). I mean, I just don’t get it. Magic vs. technology? That’s so Lord of the Rings.