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City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare

The Blurb On The Back:

Clary Fray just wishes that her life would go back to normal. But what's normal when you're a demon-slaying Shadowhunter, your mother is in a magically induced coma, and you can suddenly see Downworlders like werewolves, vampires, and faeries? If Clary left the world of the Shadowhunters behind, it would mean more time with her best friend, Simon, who's becoming more than a friend. But the Shadowhunting world isn't ready to let her go - especially her handsome, infuriating, newfound brother, Jace. And Clary's only chance to help her mother is to track down rogue Shadowhunter Valentine, who is probably insane, certainly evil - and also her father.

To complicate matters, someone in New York City is murdering Downworlder children. Is Valentine behind the killings - and if he is, what is he trying to do? When the second of the Mortal Instruments, the Soul-Sword, is stolen, the terrifying Inquisitor arrives to investigate and zooms right in on Jace. How can Clary stop Valentine if Jace is willing to betray everything he believes in to help their father?

I wasn't expecting much from this sequel to City of Bones, but City of Ashes is less derivative and more fleshed out. Unfortunately, it suffers from the same purple prose problems, characterisation is sometimes patchy and the internal logic creaks.

On the plus side, Clare works harder to make the material here her own. In particular I found Valentine less cliched as a villain. In fact, Clare does a decent job at showing someone so utterly convinced that he is right and acting for the Shadowhunters' own good that he can't even begin to think that he might be wrong. As a result, I could just buy into his being willing to use demons to further those ends. In fact the real problem in this book was with the Inquisitor, a single-minded Shadowhunter who holds Jace responsible for the sins of his father and refuses to listen to any views different to her own and who I felt was a rehash of the Valentine from City of Bones.

Jace is calculated to appeal to teenagers - moody, handsome and with hints at special powers. Whilst I think that his dialogue sometimes doesn't fit his age, his scenes are confidently handled. I wish I could say the same for Clary. She remains far too passive and reactive and when given special powers of her own, it takes her too close to Mary-Sue territory (particularly given the hints at what Valentine did to her and her brother). The possibly incestuous feelings between Clary and Jace are the main theme in the book and it's a shame to see the subject handled in such a shallow manner. Neither Clary or Jace seem to really think about the consequences or emotional implications of their feelings and whilst Clare seems to be stacking the plot towards a "surprise" that they're not actually related, I found this particular storyline to be dull and empty, particularly given that the incest element drowns out the love triangle between Clary, Jace and Simon.

Simon suffers a great deal in this book and it's a real shame that Clare chooses not to include a scene that should have been an emotional powerhouse where Simon is transformed into a vampire. There have been hints of this since City of Bones, but when it actually happens, it occurs off-page and there's no build up to it. This is frustrating given that you don't get a lot of Simon's point of view in the text and when he chooses to go to the vampire hotel, it's right after he's witnessed a passionate kiss between Clary and Jace. There should have been something connecting the two event, if only to give Clary's later feelings of guilt more depth. Saying that, the scene where Simon erupts from his grave a fledgling vampire is well-handled but it's a shame that Clare isn't interested in drawing more from his panic at suffering the constraints of being a vampire whilst also having to live with his family.

Isabelle and Alec are relegated to the sidelines, although there's a small storyline relating to Alec's relationship with the warlock Magnus Bane and his confusion over his homosexuality and fear of his parents finding out. Luke makes an appearance, as does a new werewolf character, Maia who's touted as a new love interest for Simon and the Lightwood parents who don't feature much on page.

The prose is purple and repetitive at times - I lost count of the number of people who taste something metallic in their mouths or had eyes like chips of blue/green/brown. There are some inner-story logic problems as well, notably in a scene where Jace visits his father, finding him easily even though he's managed to evade all of the other Shadowhunters. A scene involving the Seelie Court is well written but serves no real purpose other than to further the incest/love triangle storyline. I'm also not sure I understand why the Clave has allowed so many people affiliated to Valentine's Circle to have positions of responsibility in this world and I'm irritated by the incosnistency as to how the Shadowhunters seem to understand some cultural references (e.g. how to read a Manga book) but don't understand others.

Best scenes in the book involve a dream sequence between Clary and her comatose mother which is evocative and nicely handled and a scene where Valentine attacks the Silent Brothers, which is chilling and intense. Clare chooses to leave this story with a cliffhanger, which feels very cheap as a device although will undoubtedly leave fans panting for the concluding book.

The Verdict:

Better than City of Bones, I think that Clare is improving as a writer and seems more confident of her material. However the incest storyline lacks emotional punch or credibility and Clare drops anvils as to how it will work out. A decision to leave out a key scene for Simon is a massive mistake in my opinion and robs the book of what should have been it's most shocking and emotionally devestating scene. The writing remains clunky and the prose purple and repetitive at times, but there are some well done scenes and whilst the cliffhanger ending is a cheap device, there is still a sense that Clare knows how she wants to resolve the story arc.

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