I know I said last week that we were going to start talking about Marie Rutkoski’s The Winner’s Trilogy this week, buuuut, as life would have it, we all read Cassandra Clare’s new book Lady Midnight first and we’ve been itching to talk Shadowhunters with you for a while now. Never fear, fans of The Winner’s Trilogy, we’re returning to the series in a couple weeks, but starting today we’re going to spend the next couple weeks delving into Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunters universe.
Honestly, I’m not sure how none of us has recommended any of the Shadowhunters books to you before now. Perhaps it’s the epic scope of the Shadowhunter universe. There’s a lot of books to talk about! Cassandra Clare has no less than six series (and a codex) planned or already written within the Shadowhunters universe, with The Mortal Instruments as its “flagship” series. These are books for people who like the long game. If you’re looking for quick reads, these books aren’t going to fill that bill. I’m going to get to talking about TMI in a bit, but first I want to get Shadowhunter newbies acquainted with the ‘verse.
Clare’s worldbuilding is based on the idea that there is a secret supernatural world that normal humans (mundanes) cannot see. There are angels, demons, “Downworlders” and “Shadowhunters.” Downworlders are magical beings who have distant demonic relations (warlocks, werewolves, vampires and faeries). They aren’t necessarily bad or evil, due to their demonic origins, but their magical abilities separate them from humans, and they’re generally looked down upon by Shadowhunter society. As for Shadowhunters:
“Shadowhunters (also known as Nephilim) are the appointed warriors on Earth of the Angel Raziel. They are appointed specifically to control and preside over the demons and supernatural creatures that reside in our world. A thousand years ago Raziel bestowed the tools to accomplish this task. These tools are: The Mortal Instruments—used so Shadowhunters may know truth, speak with angels, and make more of their kind; The country of Idris—where Shadowhunters live away from demons and the mundane world; The Book of Raziel (or “Gray Book”)—used by Shadowhunters to access the magic of angels to protect and augment themselves. Raziel gave these gifts to the first Nephilim, Jonathan Shadowhunter—the Shadowhunter namesake.” (from Shadowhunters 101)
Basically, Shadowhunters are total badasses, but their governing organization (The Clave) has set a bunch of laws that are incredibly strict and often unfair. These laws are necessary in many cases, but are often outdated in terms of inclusiveness and difference. The Clave has a tendency to get caught up in its own self-righteousness and its openly bigoted towards Downworlders, and has problems with Shadowhunters who are “different” in any way. As readers, we pretty much love individual Shadowhunters, but feel like the Clave is a bunch of jerks with sticks up their rears. I didn’t even attempt to find a more elegant way to say that… You should know that while the Clave can be a bunch of close-minded asshats that Clare’s Shadowhunters are usually kind and there is increasing diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, sexuality and gender as the world expands into other series.
If some of this feels a little familiar to you, it might be because some of Clare’s work was based on her Harry Potter fanfiction (and a ton of frequently used fantasy tropes that pretty much everyone writing urban fantasy uses). I only mention this because you may have heard some of the controversy around Clare’s writing. So let me dispel some of that for you right now: The Shadowhunter ‘verse is NOT Harry Potter in the slightest, and it does share familiar bones with a lot of urban fantasy, but so does most urban fantasy. So let’s just move on from that. Nicola, Alyssa and I agree that part of what’s appealing about reading these books is getting to stay in a worldbuilding framework you love, with new (amazing) characters from series to series, an amazing amount of intricate worldbuilding that spans centuries and general excitement and good writing.
So if you want to delve into some books that will yield several series worth of stories in one cohesive universe, let me start by recommending The Mortal Instruments to you. Though Clare’s series The Infernal Devices is technically “first” in terms of linear time, you don’t want to read it first. Starting with The Mortal Instruments is key because Clary Fray is our way in. Everything you need to know about Shadowhunters, you can learn by following Clary’s story.
At the start of the first book of TMI, City of Bones (which has been made into a film and now a television series), Clary Fray is an ordinary girl in New York City. She’s an artist, she has a best friend named Simon and life is just all around fairly mundane. But she witnesses a gruesome murder at a dance club one evening and everything changes. The “murder” she sees is actually a group of Shadowhunters slaying a demon, and if Clary is a mundane, she absolutely should not be able to see such a thing. One of the Shadowhunters, Jace Wayland, makes a connection with Clary and reveals himself to her. At first, the Shadowhunters assume that Clary is a rare human with the Sight, but of course there’s more to Clary’s story than a touch of magic.
As the mystery unfolds, Clary’s mother is kidnapped and Clary is attacked by a demon. All hell (literally) breaks loose at this point and Clary is thrown into the Shadowhunter world head first. City of Bones is my favorite of the six books in TMI. Getting to know how Clary fits into the Shadowhunter world is really fun. It’s also a bit horrific at times. One of the things that strikes me about TMI as a series is that it’s supernatural horror. The demons are scary. The fight scenes are incredibly tense. The stakes are really, really high.
New York City is an amazing backdrop for the series and it’s so fun to follow Clary as she gets older and finds out who she really is. These books are heavy on the romance, Clary falls hard for Jace and their relationship comes with bucketloads of built in angst, lies and mysteries. I am consistently impressed with how Clare is willing to torture her darlings. Really, the depths to which all of her romantic leads are tested are kind of stunning. Though TMI focuses mainly on Clary, there is a great cast of supporting characters, and the complicated relationships that Clary has with each of them (and that they have with one another) are part of what makes this series not only incredibly readable, but I daresay a bit addictive.
One of the biggest reasons I wanted to recommend not only this series, but the entire span of Clare’s work, is because I am a reader who never wants the story to be over when I really love a series. I love being able to pick up books that have new characters, but in a world I already understand. Of course, there are characters that make their way through all of the Shadowhunters books, so the people you love will show up again in one way or another. I like that.
Clare has made a career out of the Shadowhunters. You might think that somehow the stories would become diluted and not as fun, but I’ve actually found it’s the opposite. Everything that Clare creates in TMI just gets better in subsequent books. This is because Clare’s talent isn’t primarily awesome worldbuilding (though she has that going on too), it’s great characters with exciting relationships. Love, friendship, family, all of these things are what make these series worth reading. Give them a shot, and welcome to our two weeks of Shadowhunter love!
Allison Carr Waechter would usually prefer to be a vampire, but in terms of the Shadowhunter ‘verse, she’s pretty sure she’d be slaying demonic hordes. Maybe she’s just feeling violent this week, it is the end of the semester after all.