Kate Rispoli ‘24 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
If you’re familiar with the young adult fantasy genre, you’ve certainly heard the name Cassandra Clare. She’s been writing professionally since 2007 when her debut novel, City of Bones, the first of her twenty-two stories in the Shadowhunters universe, was published. Shadowhunters has been Clare’s baby ever since, and with five more books expected in the coming years, it seems she has a bit of trouble letting it go.
The Eldest Curses is her second latest trilogy. Branching off from the original series, The Mortal Instruments, this trilogy follows immortal warlock Magnus Bane and shadowhunter Alec Lightwood as they struggle to find time for romance in between fighting demons and saving the world. The trilogy has no consistent timeline and instead consists of vignettes that fit within Clare’s other books, and the basis behind the series is the fan-favorite love story.
The second installment and latest release from the trilogy, The Lost Book of the White, follows Magnus and Alec as they face their biggest challenge yet: finding a babysitter for their toddler son Max when the loss of an important spellbook and the discovery of a mysterious weapon sends them on a spontaneous mission across the globe.
While expectations were high for this second installment, the execution was sorely lacking. With the end of the trilogy approaching the question must be acknowledged: is Clare still able to write high-quality books for the Shadowhunters universe?
The plot was jarringly similar to that of The Red Scrolls of Magic, the first book in the trilogy. Magnus and Alec head to another country on a world-saving adventure, Magnus keeps complicated secrets, Alec wants nothing more than to be surrounded by love and affection, and the newly introduced characters are seldom trustworthy.
Additionally, because it takes place between Clare’s pre-existing books, the plot is incredibly low-stakes. Nothing can happen unless it has a minimal effect on the universe, because there is already a predetermined past and future for the series. When it seems like everything is about to fall apart, everything turns out okay because it has to. A happy ending is far from a problem to most readers, but the lack of any stakes certainly is. Suspense can be built up, but it is difficult for readers to invest emotionally in the story when they can easily see the light at the end of the tunnel.
With twenty-two books in the Shadowhunters universe already published, it seems like an original plot may be out of Clare’s reach. The existence of a strangely sassy demon and a group trip to hell was a central focus of this book, as it was in Clare’s 2014 book City of Heavenly Fire. In fact, the cast of characters that makes up this group trip is nearly identical to that of the aforementioned book, practically copied and pasted. There’s a difference between the inclusion of recurring tropes, used by many series authors, and the use of the same plot outline as used by Clare.
While the book’s strong suit was certainly not the plot, the same is unfortunately true about the character development. In any book, when the plot lacks, it’s the characters who make up for it. Magnus and Alec, despite being at the forefront of the story—as well as the most marketable part of the series—were unfortunately dry.
Magnus, the most frequently occurring character in all twenty-two of Clare’s books, per his usual characterization, is witty and eccentric. He never fails to lighten a moment with a snarky one-liner, like the way he brushes down his past childhood traumas with a sarcastic comment. In the midst of the darker plot—essentially: Princes of Hell aiming to destroy the world—he is the light that brightens everything up.
Alec, in the same manner, is no different than expected. He is blunt and a bit awkward, especially among the cast of newly introduced characters, an obvious introvert foil to Magnus’s extroverted character. He is the epitome of overprotectiveness, visible in the way that he fawns over Max, Magnus, and his little sister in nearly every chapter. He’s the brave leader of the Shadowhunters, heroic in every sense of the word.
There’s nothing wrong with consistent characterization—far from it. What is wrong is the lack of any character growth as the plot moves forward. Magnus keeps secrets from Alec to protect him, Alec gets overly worried and comforts him, the truth doesn’t really come out, and the problem is brushed over—books one and two, in a sentence.
Their new roles as parents are also barely touched upon because, even though it is the number one plot point in the book’s synopsis, their son Max is undeniably tossed to the side. He has a few adorable moments throughout, given he is the Shadowhunters equivalent of The Incredibles’ Jack-Jack, but besides that, he only gets the occasional mention in the middle of all the demonic chaos: “We have to save the world, we have to fight those demons, remember that we have a son? That little cutie? Yeah? Should we take a journey to hell? Yeah? Cool, I’ll pack a bag.”
Unfortunately, despite the advertisement of “Magnus and Alec struggle with parenting”, there is more of a focus on other characters from the Shadowhunters universe than there is on the supposed premise of the book. Clare seemed more inclined to continue building the universe and creating a base for another book instead of focusing on the main characters.
The issue doesn’t lie in the fact that a plethora of old characters were brought back, but rather the unnecessary focus on them. Shadowhunter Jace Herondale, for example, was the male protagonist and main character of the original Mortal Instruments series. His presence in The Eldest Curses is not surprising, given that he’s also Alec’s best friend and adopted brother. What is surprising is the rather random C plot that focuses on him. At the same time that Magnus and Alec are gathering a team to road trip to hell, Jace is struggling with his career choices after a life-changing job offer, which has no effect on the events of this book. Instead, it seems that this plot was added to set up another series where this job offer and Jace play a greater role.
Essentially, this book did not do what it was expected to do, based on the promising synopsis. It laid down the foundation for another future series while using Alec and Magnus’s love story to gain the attention of loyal readers. Clare knows her audience: she knows that the two of them have a very special place in the hearts of a majority of her fans, and knowing this allows her to milk the cash cow of the franchise. By throwing their names on the back cover and giving them a copy-and-paste storyline, Clare makes sure that her books are purchased time and time again.
Without a doubt, it was not a bad read. It was fun, with an intriguing cast of new and old characters and a boatload of sarcastic humor from nearly all parties. It features more mature versions of both Magnus and Alec compared to the trilogy’s first book, versions that are ready to settle down and raise a family. The progression of their lives is certainly what kept many reading. Seeing moments between the two in a more domestic sense, fawning over Max as he starts to walk and talk, is enough to tug at the heartstrings of fans.
Yet, despite fans’ strong emotional investment, it seems that Cassandra Clare’s cash cow is doomed to run dry. While being a fun read may be enough for casual enjoyment, it isn’t enough to encourage readers to pick up book 3, The Black Volume of the Dead, hitting shelves in 2022. If Clare’s final installment does manage to make its way to the best sellers list, it will be due to readers’ nostalgia and inability to say goodbye to the franchise, not the quality of the book.