Review: Shadowhunters and Downworlders: A Mortal Instruments Reader

Shadowhunters and Downworlders: A Mortal Instruments ReaderShadowhunters and Downworlders: A Mortal Instruments Reader by Cassandra Clare, et. al.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What I ultimately have to say in my reflections about “Shadowhunters and Downworlders: A Mortal Instruments Reader” may take quite a bit of time. So sit back, get cozy, grab a cup of your favorite drink (in my case for the moment, it’s hot cocoa), and maybe put on some mood music (I’m currently playing Depeche Mode’s “Strangelove”, but I have a wide variety of tunes on my playlist at the moment, and it’s just being random).

I kind of want to create a relaxing environment for those who come across this review because it might be easier to digest that way, because there’s much ground to cover on the basis of this work for the dimensions it addresses (and the parts it doesn’t).

Forewarning to those who may peruse this review: I am not a Mortal Instruments fan, per se. That might get a rise out of some of you, saying “Well if you’re not a fan, why are you reading this, Rose?” The argument I’ll make is that you don’t have to be a fan of the series to read this, considering this is a compilation of short non-fiction essays about the MI series, but you will have to have read the series, or at least know enough about the series’ events, to pick this up. (I qualify as the latter, because I haven’t read past book 2, and I still have to write a review for that.) Otherwise: SPOILER WARNINGS aplenty.

Also, if you’re a die hard fan of Cassie Clare – the writer, you’re probably not going to like some of the things I have to say in this review. But I do believe in being honest and try to provide some constructive food for thought to the table. There are some things about this book that bothered me with respect to Clare’s contributions to it. I’ll address that shortly.

I’m going to keep the actual spoilers on TMI’s series to a minimum and just reflect on the essays themselves. For the most part, “Shadowhunters and Downworlders” is interesting when you get down to the individual article contributors- the majority of them having some very interesting topics to approach, and the way of their approach being refreshing to read even if you’re not entirely enamored with the series. The reason for this is because there’s a conversational tone to the collection that provides a jumping point for a smorgasbord of topics. It’s a conversation starter as well as – for some of the entries especially – an opportunity for the authors within to share what they liked about Clare’s series. Coming into this, I knew that I would probably not see eye to eye with some of what the authors had to say, but I was looking for how well they made their points and the intrigue of the topic they had to cover, just as well as the way they presented that topic.

However, and this is a BIG however, I had many problems in this narrative, some of which significant enough to affect my reading experience of this in multiple dimensions. I’m not going to hold my tongue about some of the critiques because I think it’s warranted with how the work comes across and with respect to it being the type of work it is.

One of them is having to tell Cassie Clare to take a step back when it comes to a book that’s supposed to be other people talking about her work. I know she’s the editor of this compilation, and I know that a great many of the authors in this compilation are close associates, writing partners, and friends of hers, but I couldn’t for the life of me understand why it was so hard to let those authors’ different contributions speak for themselves. Were those intros to each essay really necessary? I didn’t think so. Matter in point, I found them extremely distracting – I call it breaking a fourth wall or maybe something along the lines of a Natalie Cole effect.

Here’s a tangent that I’ll explain: Natalie Cole had a TV movie done of her life that showed a while back on TV – I think it was Lifetime or something of that measure. She starred in it, which was actually an aspect that was fine with me, particularly when the movie came to the present day and she’s shown embracing parts of her life after a series of ups and downs. But what I couldn’t get over in the portrayal of that movie was that she would, in certain parts, show up to “narrate” the things that would happen to her while looking directly at the camera, as if she’s addressing the audience directly. Now there’s nothing to say if someone can make that technique work for them, but more often than not, it had the tendency to throw one out of the movie – because it breaks the flow of the narrative and calls into question what method to tell the story within: a documentary, a fictionalized re-enactment, or a personal narrative? It tries to go for all three, but never settles into either of them, and it doesn’t help getting into the shoes of what it’s trying to portray: the singer’s life. That’s not intended to knock Natalie Cole as a singer and a woman of her respective accomplishments and accolades, but more of the way the film comes across.

That said, the intro narratives, if you will, made by Clare before each essay in this collection, came across as distracting, pretentious, and didn’t offer much that each respective essay couldn’t have done by its lonesome. I think a far better alternative would’ve been – since Clare did the Intro to this collection – to include brief thoughts about the essays within that one section, and then left the rest alone. It’s something that I’ve seen in a few writing collections where the author contributed thoughts to a collection of critical essays about his/her work.

This series of articles are from people who do – collectively speaking – like the MI series, and use dimensions from the series to approach a wide array of topics. Some of these were hits – such as talking about Jewish practice, or the history of tattoo art or the importance of place in a narrative. Others were a complete miss – such as establishing how incest is…healthy (Ick! – pun intended). I’ll address the ones that stood out the most to me, for better and worse.

The collection starts off with “Unhomely Places” – an examination of the role of place in a story. Kate Milford, author of “The Boneshaker,” eloquently expounds upon her own experiences with place, cites examples of how City of Bones forms a firm sense of place with within New York, as well as how place shapes identity in a number of different ways. I enjoyed the expansions and examples she used within the text.

Michelle Hodkin, author of “The Unbecoming of Dara Myer”, caught my attention to the detail she used in her article: “Simon Lewis: Jewish, Hero, Vampire”, because personally I did like Simon’s character in TMI and she does a good job working the details of Jewish practice while delving into some personal insights with the character and the trials he faces in the narrative.

Rachel Caine’s (Not) For Illustration Purposes Only was probably my favorite contribution among the collective essays, because she gives so many interesting details on the history of tattoos and establishes her points well for what she liked about the TMI series. She’s very humorous while informative.

Sara Ryan’s “The Importance of Being Malec” was an interesting piece spanning multiple topics: the incidence of GLBT literature in YA (which I think could’ve been even further expanded upon, but was informative for what it offered), the relationship between Magnus Bane and Alec in the MI series, and an interesting focus on Magnus’s attire which I didn’t expect. It covered a lot of ground and I found it interesting to read.

Rounding out the collection was Sarah Rees Brennan’s “What Does That Deviant Wench Think She’s Doing? Or, Shadowhunters Gone Wild.” I’ll admit that title alone made my eyebrows raise. I read it was probably somewhere halfway between laughing and saying “Oh Sarah, you so crazy,” to shaking my head. It was very hit and miss considering her voice for humor, and it’s not as serious as some of the collection but I still found it worth the time taken to read.

The remaining collection of narratives are respectable and noteworthy in many of their chosen topics, but I have to bring attention to one of the articles in this that really had me conflicted after I read it – I could see some good points in it, but I also saw a lot of muddled/mixed messages in it. It’s a shame because I love Kendare Blake’s writing – especially considering how much I liked “Anna Dressed in Blood” and “Girl of Nightmares”, the latter I finished not long ago. But Blake wrote an article which is probably the most controversial out of this group of essays. It deals with the matter of the suggested incest between Clary and Jace in the MI series. The article: “Brotherly Love: Jace, Clary, and the Function of Taboo” left me feeling conflicted about reading the article, but I wanted to give it a chance. Particularly noted, the blurb for “Shadowhunters and Downworlders” notes that this work examines “the benefits (no really) of incest in literature.”

Uh…that’s not a good selling point, to be blunt about it. But Blake, to her credit, begins the article on an interesting note: saying in so many words that readers like to see characters struggle through conflict and that “happy couples are boring.” But then the article goes on to say that Jace and Clary “overcome the taboo of sibling incest, and they do it without ever crossing the grossout line.”

I’d like to raise some contentions to that. First, I always thought that TMI raised the incest measure as merely a plot point for conflict, and to me that felt like a cheap form of playing upon the reader’s sentiments. So it horrified me when I read in Blake’s own words:

“Okay, so the incest taboo functions as an effective romantic obstacle.”

No, it doesn’t.

Incest in itself is a complex moral issue with a lot of weight (something that Blake later says in the article, which I commend her for), and it’s not easy to delve into those moral lines without people getting freaked out. Even with respect to V.C. Andrews “Flowers in the Attic” – the portrayal of incest was an enactment of sexual desires that the brother and sister could not act upon because they weren’t raised in a normal social environment (and I think that was addressed in the book as well). The “Taboo as Titilation” section of Blake’s article made me side eye the screen, because incest isn’t necessarily shown to titillate as much as it’s shown for conflict and how that conflict is seen and approached in itself, which is ultimately what drives a story. It can be a point of arousal for the reader that can come in different forms. Nota bene: I’m not saying “arousal” meaning sexual arousal, but rather the measure of drawing up strong emotions associated with a stimulus or set of stimuli. That can be an event, a conflict, a physical/emotional/mental stimulus of sorts with due consideration as to why that response comes about.

How that conflict/arousal dynamic is portrayed can make the difference between whether a story dealing with incest pulls the reader into where the characters are mentally – showing why they think/feel/act in the ways they do – or leaves the reader feeling…well…icky. Or maybe just plumb annoyed.

Anyone who watches anime remember the series Marmalade Boy? The series that had so many love quadrangles it would like to have made one’s head spin? (Hey, don’t judge me, I liked the series! Though I honestly haven’t seen it in years.) Anyone remember the last season when they were in America, and close to the end of the series there was an alarm of sorts where Yuu distanced himself from Miki because of a certain revelation that turned out not to be true?

That was, to me, an example of when the taboo/controversy wasn’t used effectively. In the series, Miki and Yuu already weathered however many barriers to their relationship since the beginning – many of them quite plausible. The best friend that pines over the girl, the girl who pines over the new guy, the best friend who pines over the guy who doesn’t know she exists? All plausible conflicts, and ultimately it’s those ups and downs that allowed the viewer to get closer to the characters through the duration of the series. Then there was the awkward navigating to try to say how they felt, and the share of heartbreak at the revelations that came to pass. The unfolding events were even to the point where they had friends break/make up and end up going into their own relationships to speak of. But by the time that particular controversial element was added, it just felt like a vehicle carelessly thrown in for conflict.

I personally felt that way about how Clare introduced the incest angle in TMI – because it seemed like it was thrown into the foray for the conflict rather than actually dealing with the sentimental and moral repercussions of it. Granted, in TMI there is some back and forth in the complication of Jace and Clary’s relationship after the “incest” reveal, but to say it’s meaningful or justified? I’ll agree to disagree on the portrayal, but I still didn’t like how Blake tried to explain it initially. And even in latter parts of the article, it’s awkward.

I think the argument was a little more sound as it made reference to the nature of conflict and how it functions in a story. Yet, I was pretty skeptical of the justification between the role of incest between Jace and Clary’s relationship versus Jonathan and Clary’s relationship and how somehow the latter was more negative than the former. With an issue like incest, you may have differences in the degrees of the relationships and intent, considering character relations and their respective interactions, but to try to segment something that’s already a significant social/societal/moral taboo in its own nature is difficult. And considering that the taboo is portrayed in a false light ultimately – functioning as a barrier to Jace/Clary’s relationship – it makes it even more manipulative, really. The matter’s shown as more of a vehicle rather than a conflict with due moral weight.

I don’t know, I have a feeling that Blake’s article is going to be seen in a multitude of different viewpoints, and while I can see certain angles of her argument, it didn’t sit well with me.

On an overall note, I think this compilation was worth reading for its better moments, but not without a fair share of cons to consider with it.

Overall score: 2.5/5

Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from the publisher Smart Pop/BenBella Books, Inc.

View all my reviews

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