We have had an amazing couple of weeks sharing our love for Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter universe with you. Today we’re wrapping up with a discussion of the ‘verse as a whole, including the television series and film.
A note: Spoilers abound in this particular Coven Chat, so if you haven’t read or seen anything in the Shadowhunters saga, and you don’t want things spoiled, don’t read on!
Nicola: Naturally, we’re starting our discussion with the core of the Shadowhunter universe: the books. So far there are two completed series, The Mortal Instruments and The Infernal Devices, and the first book in a third, The Dark Artifices. One of the things I really like about the Shadowhunter books is the way the series share common themes with each other. There are some popular YA themes – the loss or incompetence of parental figures (Tessa’s aunt, Clary’s mother, Julian’s uncle), first love, etc. – but the books also commonly explore themes like forbidden love and the importance of family (by blood and by choice). Not only does this mean the books are linked on a deeper level than shared characters and world, but it also means that there’s room for nuanced exploration of these different topics.
Allison: I am really impressed by Clare’s willingness to “go there” in terms of forbidden love. In November of last year, Scott Bergstrom started that big kerfluffle by implying that his book is unique in that he was willing to put his characters in “morally ambiguous” situations when “other YA” doesn’t typically do that. All I could think was “But does your character fall in love with someone, only to find out that they are their long lost sibling and then DECIDE TO GO AHEAD WITH THE ROMANCE ANYWAY????” Obviously, Bergstrom is a bit of dunce when it comes to knowing the market, but it’s something that folks who are dismissive of YA in general often use to dismiss it. The idea that YA, especially YA fantasy and sci-fi, is generally cut and dry in terms of morality is nuts. Cassandra Clare has been setting the bar for morally ambiguous since City of Bones.
Nicola: THIS. Even though I could never really get behind how Clary and Jace’s relationship developed (just because I think he’s an ass and it was basically instalove), I thought it fit so perfectly with the wider themes of The Mortal Instruments, because it’s all about the importance of family, but specifically about the importance of the people who act like family, not people who are family merely as an accident of birth. As far as the Lightwoods are concerned, Jace is their son, and Luke is far more father to Clary than Valentine.
The Clave places a lot of emphasis on how Clary and Jace ought not to be trusted because of their father (never mind that Clary never even met the man), but as you say below one of the continuing themes in the Shadowhunter universe is the contrast between the actions of individual Shadowhunters and the Clave’s policies. While the Clave thinks being Valentine’s children makes Clary and Jace suspicious, Luke, Jocelyn, R obert and Maryse just see the young adults they brought up. In this context, it is Isabelle who is Jace’s sister, and Simon the closest thing to a brother Clary has, so it’s fitting to explore what happens when the two kinds of relationships – blood relatives who are strangers and non-blood relations who become friends and more – collide.
Alyssa: I really like what both of you are saying. I also love that Clare portrays forbidden love and the importance of family as complex and morally ambiguous concepts. While I sometimes get annoyed with the love triangle in The Infernal Devices and with Clary and Jace’s romance (for the same reasons Nicola mentioned), I appreciate that these series aren’t afraid to challenge our moral compass or assumptions. The Infernal Devices seems to accept the possibility of being in love with more than one person, and The Mortal Instruments suggests that Clary and Jace would likely still be in love even if they were in fact brother and sister. Perhaps, Clare’s books demonstrate that feelings of mutual love are never wrong?
Allison: My inclination is to say that Clare’s main point in all this is that these issues exist outside of right and wrong. It’s powerful to even acknowledge that such complexity exists. Along these same lines, I am always fascinated by how Clare positions her heroes. I’ve said this before, but Clare does a great job of making us feel attached to individual Shadowhunters, but question the hell out of the Clave’s moral compass. This is really cool to me because it parallels so much of how the real world is structured. In particular, I find the parallels between Western military and police forces and the Clave to be particularly salient and timely. The Clave asks Shadowhunters to put aside common decency and morality to enforce bigoted laws pretty frequently, all in the name of safety. Some Shadowhunters take advantage, others rail against the system. It’s to Clare’s credit that she includes characters that are someplace in the middle.
Nicola: Yes! I love this aspect, too. One of the things I think Clare does well here is that it’s almost understandable why many Shadowhunters look down upon mundanes, because from their perspective they fight and die to protect mundanes, who don’t even know it’s happening. It’s clear from the narrative, particularly Clary’s storyline, that this attitude is not acceptable, but at the same time there isn’t utter condemnation for the people who have lost so much in a fight they never chose while the rest of the world is completely ignorant of it. I think for many Shadowhunters there’s a bit of envy for mundanes, along the lines of Jessamine’s, but they can’t be mundanes without losing their families and culture, so they channel their anger at the injustice towards the people they wish they could be. It’s petty and wrong, but not entirely unsympathetic.
Alyssa: I also like that Clare’s books are compassionate towards characters who are struggling with what’s right and wrong, good and evil, and who sometimes (or often) make immoral or morally compromised decisions. She pushes her readers to try to understand why creatures–humans, nephilim, angels, demons–behave cruelly, but she does not excuse their cruelty. Clare compares the moral ambiguity of humans, Shadowhunters and Downworlders with pure notions of good and evil, especially when you consider religious beliefs and the demon realms.
Take Sebastian, for example. Although he’s such a blatantly evil character because of his demon blood, I also couldn’t help wondering how much Clary’s mother is to blame for Sebastian’s evil nature…beyond his biological makeup and paternal influence. How much of Sebastian’s cruelty and violence result from his feelings of abandonment and loneliness? His parents rejected him (even Valentine for Jace), and Sebastian seems to genuinely want his sister to love and value him (as twisted as his efforts are to win her love). If their mother had loved and cared about Sebastian’s well-being and loved him unconditionally, even though he has demon rather than angel blood, would that have made a difference in his behavior? If his mother and sister had cared about him, would he have been less cruel? I’m not sure, but Clare raises those questions about whether good and evil are black and white concepts, or whether everything is morally ambiguous and everyone has the potential to be good or bad, depending on whether they are loved or hated. Shadowhunters as a whole are both benevolent and callous, superheroes and monsters.
Nicola: That’s a very good point, Alyssa. Even the Clave and Shadowhunter culture as a whole cannot be regarded as a one-dimensional bigoted force. Much of Shadowhunter culture is shaped by their role as protectors and demon-slayers, but at the same time concepts like parabatai and runes for marriage celebrate human love and relationships.
Allison: Yes, this idea that the Clave is both law (and as we know “the law is hard, but it is the law”) and people that enforce the law is so complex. So prevalent is the idea that laws and societal rules must grow and change with the times and with bodies of people and the truth that this is a hard process. I love how messy Clare lets it all be and that she shows how individuals work to turn the tides of these discussions, but that the tides are forces of nature and that change is slow.
It’s for all these reasons that I have trouble deciding which series I love best. There are aspects of The Mortal Instruments that I like better than the other series, but until Lady Midnight, I loved The Infernal Devices as a series more. Now I think The Dark Artifices will probably be my favorite series because so far it features my favorite characters and it’s the conglomeration of all the different complexities that Clare has been developing for years in other series.
Alyssa: I haven’t finished The Infernal Devices or read Lady Midnight yet, so I can’t say which is my favorite series. But I’m really looking forward to reading The Last Hours and The Dark Artifices and having an even better understanding of how all of these series relate.
Nicola: I think The Infernal Devices is still my favourite, but I did love a lot of the characters in Lady Midnight, so after the rest of The Dark Artifices comes out it’ll probably be a toss up between the two.
So we all love all the books, but what about the movie and TV series based off of them? The impression I always get of the film is that the filmmakers couldn’t decide if they were making a movie for existing fans or making a movie for Shadowhunter newbies, and they ended up with something confusing to non-fans (my fiancé had to keep asking me what was happening!) that changed some significant features of the book, upsetting existing fans – for instance, I couldn’t really get behind the portrayal of Valentine because he didn’t fit the well-manicured, charismatic character from the book.
This is something I think the TV series manages to balance better, in part because of the different formats; the first few episodes of the series felt plagued by the same problem as the movie, but then it diverged enough that, as a book fan I can enjoy it as a loose adaptation, but if I were unfamiliar with the books I’d be able to follow the story because it doesn’t presuppose an understanding of the Shadowhunter universe.
Allison: I totally agree with what you’re saying about the TV series handling this a bit better. The thing the movie had going for it from my perspective was great actors and beautiful costumes and sets. It felt like the Shadowhunter world to me. Not quite the one I imagined in my head, but the aesthetic made sense, though I agree 100% that Valentine was not Valentine in the film. Trying to make him young and sexy just didn’t work.
Nicola: Yes, me too! That’s actually one of my main gripes about the TV series; I don’t like the high-tech aspects of the New York Institute because there shouldn’t even be computers in a Shadowhunter Institute.
Allison: YESSSS. No computers in any of the Institutes! I understand why they’re doing it, but it’s one of the things that’s so integral to Shadowhunter culture and it informs so much about how they are separate from the world.
Alyssa: I haven’t seen the City of Bones movie, but I’m really glad the series didn’t continue as a film franchise and was adapted as a TV series instead. While the first few episodes suffered a bit from weak character and plot development, I thought the second half of the TV series improved immensely. The beginning episodes felt a bit rushed, the acting and storylines somewhat awkward, forced and cheesy; but then the actors became more comfortable and natural in their roles.
I also really like that the characters in the TV series are a bit different than how they are in the books; they are not just a few years older, but Jace and Isabelle, for example, are less pompous and more relatable in the TV show. I also like that the storylines diverge from the books. Season One incorporates and changes plotlines from City of Ashes and City of Glass. I think it would be problematic if season one followed City of Bones, season two followed City of Ashes, and so on.
Nicola: I really struggled to get into the series at first for the same reasons you mention. In more recent episodes, however, the series has diverged enough from the book that even though the characters still don’t feel quite like their book versions, they feel like rounded, interesting characters all the same. I get the impression that the producers wanted to do a loose adaptation along the lines of The Vampire Diaries or Pretty Little Liars, and felt the need to get major plot points out of the way as soon as possible, which didn’t leave room for much character development. Now that it’s forging its own path I’m enjoying it a lot more – with the plus that I don’t see everything coming!
Allison: I totally agree. I worried that the series would flop for about half of the first season.My biggest issue with the show in the beginning was the cheese factor. It lost a lot of its dark edge with the over-stylized “Shadowhunter” costumes and the bad makeup for the runes. I’m really hoping that FreeForm is willing to dump some money into the show to clean up the aesthetic a bit more.
Nicola: The Lydia Branwell storyline is intriguing for the way it explores how traditional social mores and family obligations would encourage a young man like Alec to suppress his sexuality and marry Lydia. It is so like the Clave to be so involved in Shadowhunters’ lives that they cannot even be open about their sexuality; there is simply no room in the Clave’s worldview for Shadowhunters who don’t marry other Shadowhunters and make little Shadowhunter babies.
Allison: Yes, I think that storyline’s appearance did a lot for the development of the show in terms of both plotlines and character development. We get to understand more how narrow the Clave is at the time of The Mortal Instruments, and see how our characters react to the restrictive nature of the Clave’s morality.
The fact that Jace leaves with Valentine in the last episode of the season leaves so much open for more character development in Season Two. We’ll see Clary deal with all the complex stuff we’ve talked about from the books in terms of her feelings for Jace, as well as watching him confront the father who raised him and the idea that he might not be a “good guy” anymore. I’m hoping this will give the characters the same breathing room for complexity that the books allow.
It’s been so wonderful to talk with you ladies over the last weeks about Clare’s world of Shadowhunters. As for our readers, let us know your thoughts in the comments!