Saturday, June 25, 2011

Fairies and Shadowhunters

Two books. Two first-time authors. Two heroines living in NYC with a secret magical past to reveal.

I just finished reading City of Bones by Cassandra Clare and Wondrous Strange by Lesley Livingston. I found them while browsing for new books to read at the library. I had never heard of either one, but plucked them off the shelf, flipped through a few pages, and added to my stack for check out. I didn't know what to expect from either, and based on the covers and titles, didn't expect them to be so similar.

Interestingly, both books use similar terminology to describe the secret magical world within NYC from mortal eyes. Similar situations reveal similar aspects of this world to our heroins. Both girls are willful, independent, red-heads who can see through magic veils referred to as glamour.

 City of Bones is the story of Clary (Clarissa) Fray. While at a party with her friend / childhood sweetheart Simon, Clary sees something she shouldn't be able to see. Three shadowhunters track down a demon at the party and kill him right before Clary's eyes. Clary tries to stop them, thinking the boy they have tied up with wire is just that - an innocent boy tied up with wire. Clary tries to get help to stop what she believes is cold blooded murder, but no one else can see the boy or the three killers. After they finish, they simply disappear, with not a single drop of blood visible as evidence that she isn't going crazy.

After this encounter, Clary's world is turned upside down. When Clary comes home one night to find her mom gone and their apartment in shambles, she must turn to the three shadowhunters - Jace, Alec, and Isabelle -  for help. Shadowhunters, she learns, are members of a super secret organization that use magic and runes to hunt down demons and keep evil beings from wreaking havoc on the mortal world as well as their own hidden homeland, Idris. Clary learns that her mom has been kidnapped by evil rogue shadowhunter Valentine, who'll stop at nothing to find the mortal cup and build a shadow hunter army of his own. Clary faces off against vampires, werewolves, demons, undead, and shadowhunters, while learning shocking secrets about herself and her mother's past.

City of Bones was one of those books that I had a hard time getting into. The teenage dance club with blue haired kids having sex in storage closets (only implied never described), Clary's  I don't need a parent to tell me what to do attitude, and the overall immature feeling of the writing style didn't leave a very positive first impression on me. I wasn't at all surprised to notice that the book was published by Simeon & Schuster, who seem to be the leaders in pumping out shoddily written YA fantasy in the hopes of making profit off any phenomenon they can get their hands on.

I kept reading because a story with a secret organization of demon hunters, vampire / werewolf turf wars, and flying motorcycles certainly has potential. Unfortunately, Cassandra Clare's first attempt at novel writing didn't rise to that potential. Perhaps a few more drafts to her editor would have helped. It certainly would have fixed the typos and perhaps improved the pace of the plot.

Characters, in my opinion, should do more than stand as a means of moving along the plot. Having a great idea for a story plot is all well and good, but it means very little without good strong characters. I've heard that when developing a plot, that plot should stem from the characters, not the other way around. I wasn't sure how I felt about this idea until I read City of Bones. The plot of a book should be the means by which we come to know the character. The problem with City of Bones, is that there is very little sense of character identity. Snobbish, hostile, or secretive characters go out of their way to helpfully provide Clary (and readers) with ample explanations about who they are, what they are doing, and what their motivations are. Clary never has to search for answers herself, they are all dropped right in her lap. Because of this, the characters and narrator all flow together in one voice. We get a lot of very interesting plot, but it means little without characters to back it up.

Wondrous Strange, by comparison, was like eating warm popcorn and snuggling in a soft blanket fresh out of the dryer. Seventeen-year-old Kelley Winslow is a theater school drop-out, pursuing her dreams the hard way in NYC. Kelley wants nothing more than to become a theater actress, and catches her big break when she she goes from stagehand / understudy, to playing Titania in A Midsummer Nights Dream. However, learning her lines becomes the least of her worries after she unwittingly rescues a kelpie horse from drowning in Central Park, only to later find it camped out in her apartment bathtub. Add in a couple chance encounters with changeling Sonny Flannery, and Kelley finds her self thrown into the secrets of the Faerie world. Central Park is really a gateway to the Faerie lands, and Sonny is one of 13 gatekeepers struggling to keep tricky Fae from crossing into the mortal world. Unfortunately Sonny can't keep Kelley out of his mind, and somehow she keeps ending up in Central Park - in danger. It turns out Kelley has a secret Faerie heritage that even she doesn't know about. But someone in the Otherworld does, and that person wants Kelley dead. As the secrets unfold and the danger heightens, Kelley relies on her dreams of being an actress and her growing love for Sonny to remind her of who she is and what she wants as she struggles with the temptations of faerie power and the trickery of faerie politics. 

Wondrous Strange is a fun read, with enough humor, action, and romance to appeal to a wide variety of (female) fantasy readers. It's true that Sonny's great revelation to Kelley about her secret past is very disappointing and anticlimactic; but for the most part, the writing is simple, clean, and consistent, making for an enjoyable and fast read (less than 24 hour read). If you like fantasy and you're looking for a quick, fun read, I highly recommend Wondrous Strange. The main characters are loveable and the story is magical and charming. If an author has done her job well, then you don't want to leave her world and characters when you are finished. I am impressed by Lesley Livingston as a first-time author and hope to see her improve and grow in her craft.



  1. It seems like the theme of a girl who is "secretly" a "something" and then discovers all kinds of new stuff is fairly big in this kind of genre. It is even similar to Harry Potter who was "secretly" a wizard and never knew it.

    Secretly, deep down, we all have a part that wants to be big, great, special, or beautiful.

    Do you thing it adds to stories such as this when you have a blend of reality with the fantasy (where everything is normal reality, then magic gets added in) as opposed to just having a similar story set in a world of magic? And if so, I wonder why. If the story is the same, then it would have to be the discovery of something like that which is the added "draw".

    Or might it be easier to just suspend reality alltogether and have a world like LoTR that is all magic from beginning to end and has no blend to reality. Better to have to switch between reality and fantasy or stay caught up in the fantasy?

  2. ^ My first comment! <3

    I might have to discuss this topic further in a later post, but the trend of writing books set in a normal world with a secret hidden magical world has been very prevalent ever since Harry Potter. In fact there are very few books (and fewer popular books) set outside the normal world. I find it a little bit sad and would love to see a return to books with original settings.