Clary's fifteen years old. While that doesn't automatically make this a young-adult book, it's filled with a lot of young-adult themes: dating, identity, a changing view of the world. Plus, Clary has to complete her quest without any help from adults. In fact, many times adults end up being the bad guys Clary has to battle.
What was that about a quest? You've heard of the quest for the Holy Grail, right? This is similar, but it's more of a quest for the un-Holy Grail. Clary is initially searching for her mother, a quest that takes her all around New York City, above it, and below it. When she joins forces with Jace, her quest becomes two-fold. She has to rescue mom and recover the Mortal Cup—an artifact that makes people into Shadowhunters—before Valentine gets his grubby little hands on it.
See, Valentine wants to use it for evil, to build an army. Not good. This adds quite a sense of urgency, as Clary has to cavort around New York, into dark hotels that double as vampire lairs and decaying mental institutions that hide the villain's stronghold.
City of Bones has an intimidating ring to do it, doesn't it? It has an allure, too, like the Elephant Graveyard in The Lion King, which is a city of bones Serengeti-style for Simba. However, the haunting Silent City under the New York Marble Cemetery turns out to be a place to uncover secrets, not to bury them.
But let's back up a bit. This is the first book in Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments series. In City of Bones, the Mortal Instruments are a series of magical relics (think Deathly Hallows) that the forces of good and evil are scrambling to recover. Sound straightforward? Well, think a little harder, and you might wonder if there's a larger power behind the scenes pulling the strings.
At this point, we have no idea what's going on behind the scenes, but it's always possible, whether it's God, the devil, or something else entirely. Clary and her friends won't live forever (i.e. they're mortal), and what if someone is playing them all like fiddles? Clary's crew could be mortal instruments themselves, pawns in a larger game.
There are two major things that happen during the last chapter of City of Bones and they're not good:
(1) Valentine escapes with the Mortal Cup. Um, dang. Clary and friends spend the majority of the book trying to get this magical goblet back, and they lose it in the end. Bummer.
(2) Clary and Jace find out they're brother and sister. Um, double dang. Not only is Jace one of the hottest guys Clary has even laid eyes on, but they kind of kissed. A few times. Bummer doesn't even begin to describe it.
With those two things in mind, this could end on a major low note. But Clare includes an epilogue that makes things a little more upbeat.
The Epilogue is called "The Ascent Beckons" so that clues us in that things will get a little sunnier. Thankfully, they don't get too sunny, because the primary action in the epilogue involves Jace taking Clary on another bio-bike ride, and those things are severely allergic to sunlight.
Anyway, Jace takes Clary out over the city in the final scene of the book. This time, she doesn't cower in fear. She keeps her eyes open and soaks it all up. Despite all the deaths and near-deaths she's seen, she doesn't want to go back to the way she saw the world before.
Although we think she'd make an exception if she could rewind to the part right before she found out this handsome hunk was a blood relation. Awkward.
City of Bones takes Clary to a variety of locales, some exotic, some mundane. But as Clary soon learns, even the mundane has magic in it.
Clary's story opens in what might be, to some, a magical place of wonder: New York City. Heard of it?
Well, to Clary, it's nothing special. So what if it's one of the biggest cities in the world, filled with everything you could possibly imagine? She's lived there her whole life. For half the book, she doesn't voice any sort of awe or appreciation for the urban jungle. She's too occupied gazing at Jace and marveling at the secret wonders the city holds: Shadowhunter strongholds, demon lairs hidden from mortal eyes by magical glamor, and the haunting Silent City hidden under the New York Marble Cemetery, one of the oldest public cemeteries in the city.
Her slowly emerging Sight changes her view of the city, letting her see these previously hidden things. But her adventure also gives her a new perspective on the city. Quite literally. When she flies over the city on one of the vampire's bio-bikes with Jace, she sees the city in a whole new light (before that whole new light—the sunlight—causes the bike to come crashing down, anyway): "It was lovely, [Clary] could see that: the city rising up beside her like a towering forest of silver and glass" (15.73).
She's scared though, never having flown in a plane before, so she doesn't get a good long look at it. By the end of the book, she's overcome this fear. Flying over the city, Clary "kept her eyes open, so that she could see it all" (Epilogue.176). She sees the true beauty of the city, and everything she had taken for granted: "It was spread out before her like a carelessly opened jewelry box, this city more populous and more amazing than she had ever imagined" (Epilogue.167).
In case you missed it, the book opens with a quote from one of Shmoop's all-time favorite poems, Paradise Lost. Just like Paradise Lost, City of Bones gives us a glimpse of Pandemonium. Milton's Pandemonium was the capitol of Hell. Clare's Pandemonium might be the same for you, depending on your feelings for overcrowded, teen-filled raves and ridiculous clothes.
Clare said she modeled The Mortal Instruments on Dante's descent into, and return from, the Underworld in Inferno (source.) So it's fitting that Clary's journey begins at a dance club named after this iconic fictional city. If the club were named Pooh Corner, it just wouldn't have quite the same feel.
We only see the Pandemonium Club once during City of Bones, but it's a memorable start to the journey, and one that Clary will surely never forget. But that might just be because there are more parachute pants on display than in MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This" music video.
The Institute is a theme park with rides inspired by different panels of the Sistine Chapel's ceiling. No, we're kidding. It's—shocker—an institute, a building devoted to housing and educating young Shadowhunters. We guess after they had to name all sorts of crazy supernatural beings—Nephilim, djinn, fae, Eidolon demons, etc.—they ran out of ideas.
Regular humans can't see the Institute. Shadowhunter glamor keeps it hidden from mortal eyes. When Simon first sees it, he only sees a shabby old cathedral, but once inside he sees something more stunning and beautiful than even the cathedral would have been in its prime.
Clary spends a lot of time at the Institute, and it seems to have everything a Shadowhunter would need to sustain his or her rough-and-tumble lifestyle: a hospital wing, a modern kitchen, a fully stocked library, and even a beautiful greenhouse, which acts as an ersatz Garden of Eden for Clary and Jace's first kiss. See Jace's "Character Analysis" for more information on their forbidden love.
Valentine's stronghold is not only a real-life place, it's a historical landmark. The Roosevelt Island Historical Society describes it as "a fine example of the crenellated Gothic Revival Style, that it was designed by one of New York's most prominent 19th century architects, that it long served as the only center for the treatment of smallpox in the City, and that it is a romantic and picturesque ruin, evoking memories of the past" (source).
What's more romantic and picturesque than smallpox? Maybe a power-hungry jerk bent on ethnic cleansing like City of Bones villain Valentine Morgenstern who lives inside the Ruin.
Thanks to Valentine's magic, the Ruin has never actually decayed. We mundies just see it that way. Clary's Sight allows her to see through the glamor and right to the heart of its Gothic splendor. Too bad she doesn't have time to sightsee before getting attacked by an army of bloodthirsty Forsaken obeying Valentine's every command.
I sung of Chaos and eternal Night
Taught by the heav'nly Muse to venture down
The dark descent, and up to reascend...
This sounds fun, huh? Get ready to descend into hell. Turn the page, and the first chapter is titled Pandemonium, another Paradise Lost shout-out. This epigraph lets us know that we, with Clary, are about to travel into a dark world. There's hope, though: "Up to reascend." So we won't be down there forever. We'll come back. We hope.
Also, one thing to remember is that Milton was blind. Clary, and all mortals, are blind, too, in a way. They're blind to the magical worlds that lie right in front them, masked by a magical veil, keeping them safe (or at least unaware) of angels and demons that live among us.
Facilis descensus Averno;
Noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;
Sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras,
Hoc opus, hic labor est.
—Virgil, The Aeneid
If you know how to say, "What you talkin' 'bout, Virgil?" in Latin, you probably don't need our help with this one. You know this is from Book 6 of The Aeneid, and it says, "The way downward is easy from Avernus. Black Dis' door stands open night and day. But to retrace your steps to heaven's air, There is the trouble, there is the toil" (6.187-190).
The idea here is that a whole lot of people die. But a very small number (if any) ever come back from that. So the way down is a piece of cake. The gist? Part Two is beginning, and things are about to get dark and dangerous.
The descent beckons
as the ascent beckoned.
—William Carlos Williams, "The Descent"
Well, this is a lot more straightforward than the last epigraph, isn't it? It's in English, for one thing. And it's only two lines. We can totally handle that.
William Carlos Williams is a master of condensing meaning into very few lines. Quoting him makes for the perfect epigraph for Part 3, which sees muddled pasts get cleared up and Clary's quest gain an intense, immediate focus as the plot barrels through to the finish line.
It also does a wonderful job of echoing the previous two epigraphs. Descent, ascent, descent, ascent. It's like an opposites lesson from Cassandra Clare. Maybe she can team up with Katy Perry for a follow up to "Hot N Cold." But seriously, it also lets us know that the ascent isn't going to happen yet. Maybe not even in this book. The descent is what is immediate, and maybe the ascent has already passed us by.
Maybe if we had Clary's Sight, we'd discover that City of Bones has insanely complex two-hundred word sentences, tongue-twisting wordplay, and metaphors so dense they'd make black holes look like water balloons. As we know from reading the book, nothing in Clary Fray's world is what it seems. The book's accessible language, zippy dialogue, and fast-moving plot could all be a trick. If so, kudos to the warlock who cast that spell. Strictly speaking though, this book's mostly a walk in Central Park.
To be fair, Cassandra Clare does reference dozens of creatures from various mythologies, and she also throws in a little Latin for good measure (don't worry, it's all translated into English within a few lines). You say you skipped Mythology 101? Boy, did you miss out. Shmoop's Mythology section, though, can totally bring you up to speed, and you shouldn't let that scare you away from this read. You don't need to know real-world references to enjoy the book. Just as the Pandemonium Club serves as a gateway for Clary into a world she never knew existed, the novel's rich references might do the same for you.
You can't get much more literal with symbols than, well, symbols, which is exactly what these runes are. Plus magical powers.
When you're in trouble, whether you have to pick a lock in a hurry or deal with a demon from the literal gates of Hell, what would you do? If your first answer is to draw a picture, than you'd totally survive in the world of City of Bones. Congrats?
Clary may not get to attend the Tisch summer art program, but she gets an art education of a different kind from Magnus Bane when he lets her read the Gramarye, a book filled with runes that takes most Shadowhunters years to learn.
The first rune he shows her "looked something like a winged spiral, until [Clary] tilted her head, and then it seemed like a staff wound around with vines" (13.42). We picture a caduceus, although we're not sure what the staff of Mercury has to do with runic education. Jace describes it as "the rune for understanding and remembrance. It opens your mind up to reading and recognizing the rest of the Marks," (13.49) so we guess it prepares Clary for future magic messages.
Then there are the Marks, or runes that are carved directly into the skin with the stele. Before battle, Jace, Alec, and Isabelle cover themselves in them, giving them extra powers, like better weapon handling. Most aren't permanent, though. They're kind of like temporary tattoos, except for the fact that they hurt like heck and leave your skin scarred. Wouldn't it be easier just to buy one of those cheesy tattoo sleeve t-shirts?
After all, the scars last a lifetime. Clary's mother has them on her back (either she's very flexible, or she had some help applying those Marks). Jace has them along his arms, and Valentine has a chest covered in pale crisscrossing lines. The Shadowhunters are all but condemned to "a life of scars and killing" (23.18). Lovely.
For Shadowhunters, it's all just a part of growing up. Jace says that "Most Shadowhunters get their first Marks at twelve" (17.58). And Alec succinctly says, "We mutilate ourselves" (5.13), to which we say T.M.I. But if non-Shadowhunters get too many Marks, they can die, or worse—become one of the Forsaken. Those are the brainwashed soldiers cursed to follow the orders of the one who Marked them.
So, this self-injuring process has its upsides and downsides. Still, the fact that cutting yourself is a rite of passage that eventually makes you stronger seems a little dangerous to us. Please note that these are trained professionals; do not attempt at home.
Shadowhunters don't just rely on the stele, a magic marker (emphasis on the magic) for drawing tattoos on their own skin. They can also cause real harm with magical seraph blades that look like harmless wand-shaped steel tubes until a blade springs out of it like a beam from a lightsaber.
Jace explains to Clary that they're called "Sanvi, Sansanvi, and Semangelaf" (6.5), but he doesn't elaborate any further. Thanks, dude!
We do get to see Sansanvi in action when he raises the silver wand-shaped object into the air like he's Sailor Moon or something and shouts out its name. A blade emerges from the tube, "clear as glass, with a glowing hilt, wickedly sharp and nearly as long as Jace's forearm" (6.82). Yowza.
Here's the skinny: Sanvi and Sansanvi are angels who tried to bring Lilith back to Eden where she belonged. But she wasn't having it, so the angels were rebuffed. Semangelar is also one of these angels, but it is also invoked to assist pregnant women. Um, we don't want to see what Jace is going to do with that wand.
Wait a second. Who is this Lilith lady? No, not Bebe Neuwirth from Cheers and Frasier. According to some traditions, Lilith was Adam's first wife, before Eve came along. According to other traditions, she was an evil she-demon who strangled babies and seduced innocent men. You decide.
While we're on this (un)holy subject, let's talk about the Mortal Instruments themselves, shall we? There are three that we know of: a cup, a sword, and a mirror. The Mortal Cup plays pretty heavily into the narrative taking place in City of Bones, and it kind of reminds us of the Holy Grail.
The legend goes that "a warlock summoned the Angel Raziel, who mixed some of his own blood with the blood of men in a cup, and gave it to those men to drink. Those who drank the Angel's blood became Shadowhunters" (5.238). Easy enough, right? Wrong.
Not all who drink are worthy: "The reason that only a few humans are selected to be turned into Nephilim is that most would never survive the transition" (10.56). Eep. We hope they don't end up like that old dude at the end of The Last Crusade.
The Angel Raziel seems to be behind this whole mess, but we never get to see him in the book, if he even exists. The myth says that his blood, mixed with human blood, and drunk out of the Mortal Cup creates Shadowhunters. So who is this Raziel fellow? He's an international angel of mysteries, like Austin Powers with a holy aura and a less-hairy chest. He was also a pretty kickbutt Playstation game hero in the late-'90s, which isn't as irrelevant as you might think.
We might not know what Raziel looks like, but we get a good look at a few demons in the book. One we hope to never see again is Abbadon, who attacks Clary and friends after she retrieves the Mortal Cup.
Abbadon is a piece of work, isn't it? First it possesses poor Madame Dorothea (that's one thing Abbadon has going for him, if he is a "him": he looks great in drag, even if he does look more like Dame Edna than RuPaul), and then it totally busts loose in all its maggot-infested glory. It's a good thing that demons are severely allergic to sunlight, and that Clary isn't living in Alaska in January, and that Simon can go all Katniss on a bow and arrow.
Abaddon (spelled Abbadon in City of Bones) is the Hebrew word for "destruction" and, as a demon, it takes many different forms. Like a few other of Clare's demons, forms of Abbadon have appeared in multiple Final Fantasy games, and it often looks like a big beetle.
Abbadon, though, is just one of many. The abundance of heavenly and hellish creatures makes us feel like the characters are smaller pieces of a larger struggle that we can't yet understand. Maybe we'll never know. Or maybe we just need to read the next book, City of Ashes.