Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Mortal Instruments

“The descent into Hell is Easy.” 

For those wanting to better understand the stories, worldviews, and messages shaping today's youth, I offer my latest review of trending books, films, and TV shows effecting a Young Adult audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as to analyze how the story reflects and shapes the readers' worldview. There will be spoilers.

Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones (Book One in the Mortal Instruments Series) introduces us to Clary, a child of Shadowhunters. Shadowhunters trace their lineage back to the Nephilim of Genesis – well, if Genesis included humans drinking angel blood from the Mortal Cup so they could fight demons. And fight demons they do, as well as faeries (the offspring of demons and angels) and the once-human vampires and werewolves infected by demonic diseases.  

Most ordinary people (Mundanes) can’t see this reality; even if they could, they would not believe it. But when Clary sees, she believes. It’s in her blood.  She and her close friend Simon meet Jace, Alec, and Isabelle, three Shadowhunters who are young, beatuiful and strong.  Who wouldn't want to live this life? And what teenager doesn’t want to find out she really is special all along?

Unfortunately, she also finds out that her father is Valentine, a former Shadowhunter gone rogue.  He wants the Mortal Cup to raise an army to overthrow the entire Shadowhunter regime, which may not be the noble enterprise it claims to be.

In spite of some worldview issues I found troublesome, there were a number of elements I really liked.
  • Both Clary and Jace have reason to want to kill those who killed their loved ones; both eventually realize that justice and revenge are very different things indeed.
  • Magic (i.e. supernaturalism) is treated seriously; it’s a “dark and elemental force,” not a fun toy. As Tolkein made clear in The Lord of the Rings, humans are not made for magic. The demonic world may be glamorized, but it’s not glorified. Demons “drain a place to ashes.” They are destroyers, not creators. They don’t make; they only use. Though “no mundane may summon a demon,” the “desperate and foolish” have plenty of witches or warlocks to do their dirty work for them, since they have demon blood in them. When Ms. Clare labels something evil, she does not write a story that glorifies it.
  • Isabelle says of Jace, “He’ll tell you horrible truths, but he won’t lie.” I like that sentiment. Not all truth is easy to hear; I prefer stories that tell them anyway. Luke tells Clary, “If you can’t tell the truth to the people you care about the most, eventually you stop being able to tell the truth to yourself.” Well said. Would that we all were so committed to a realistic view of ourselves – and the world.
Unfortunately, all is not well in these cities of Bones and Ashes. They are situated in a world full of demons, angels, vampires, witches and warlocks, but apparently devoid of any higher power. There is no God or Satan, but their servants are everywhere. When Clary admits she’s never been in a church service before, Jace makes a joke about Jesus, then shrugs, “I’m not really a believer… My father believed in God. I don’t.”

Jace's theology is fairly similar. After his father died, he "knew then that I hadn’t stopped believing in God. I’d just stopped believing God cared. There might be a God, Clary, and there might not, but I don’t think it matters. Either way, we’re on our own.”

At one point, a Shadowhunter named Hodge says, “In my own way, I’m trying to be a good man.”  To her credit, Clary responds, “It doesn’t work that way.”  That’s the proper response, but all the main characters – including Clary - justify a lot of bad behavior as they try to be good in their own way.  Perhaps that's why so much of the story arc seems devoid of a higher sense of ethical obligation. This moral ambiguity permeates the story, most noticeably in the character's relationships.

When the story begins, Clary is fifteen. Jace and Clary fall in love only to discover at the end of City of Bone that they are brother and sister. Bummer. This leads Clary to invite a long-time friend, Simon, to her bed in City of Ashes as she tries to forget about Jace. Should I note again that she is fifteen? In spite of her best efforts, they don’t have sex. When Simon abruptly gets turned into a vampire, he's still a friend but without the potential benefits.

Simon was supposed to distract her; now she can’t escape the fact that Jace’s kiss is actually “the kiss she most desires.”  That’s awkward, of course, as they are brother and sister. Eventually, Jace seems to find the strength within him to do that right thing: “We don’t live or love in a vacuum. There are people around us who care about us who would be hurt, maybe destroyed, if we let ourselves feel what we might want to feel.”

That moment of moral clarity does not last. In City of Glass, the fact that they are brother and sister does not stop them from sharing their most intimate moment yet. When it turns out Jace is actually not Valentine’s son, all the previous incestuous creepiness is supposed to vanish in a glow of vindication. It did not.

Theirs is not the only troublesome relationship. Alec, one of the Shadowhunters, is gay. When the group meets a gay warlock named  Magnus, the sparks fly in spite of the fact that Magnus is several hundred years old. Oh, and he traffics with demons, is full of demon's blood, uses his magic to steal at will, and has done horrible things in his role as warlock.  It’s the classic “Shadowhunter teenage boy meets a centuries-old warlock full of demon’s blood and bad history.”  No matter what your stance is on same-sex relationships, portraying this kind of relationship positively is a bad idea.

Call me crazy, but I’m uncomfortable with a story where the two primary examples of love and romance involve a fifteen-year-old tempted by incest who tries to seduce her best friend to drown her true feelings, and an uncomfortably campy couple comprised of a hundreds-of-years-old demonically blooded warlock and his teenage male lover.

Meanwhile, almost all the characters are a confusing mix of shadow and light. Jace is a Shadowhunter with demon blood and weakness for beautiful sisters; Magnus is a evil warlock who becomes a strange bedfellow (literally) for the Shadowhunters; The Keepers of the Shadowhunter's Law - the good guys -  are heartless and cruel; Lucian is a werewolf and a Shadowhunter and a great father figure; the admired mentors are traitors; the greatest traitors pay homage to Milton's Satan - a character who is often seen as noble and proud in spite of being damned.  Even Simon, who begins the story as one of the world's nicest and most naive young men, eventually bites and turns to vampirism a 14-year-old girl who likes him.

I understand the appeal of this series. Clary finds out she is not just an ordinary person; she truly is special. She discovers a reality far deeper and more serious than she imagined. In spite of not having a father, a solid father figure plays a key role in her life. And when her mother disappears, she finds a home with the Shadowmancers. She is not alone after all. For many teenagers, Clary reminds them that there is hope - one can find meaning, purpose, and a place to belong in spite of fractured families and mundane lives.

But as good as the main characters are at fighting demons, they are pretty bad at fighting temptation. The first of the Shadowhunters inscribed their motto on the Mortal Cup: “The Road To Hell is Easy.”  When those meant to hunt in the shadows begin to live in those shadows, the journey has begun.

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