Tessa Gray descends from a boat from New York to Victorian England, expecting to meet her brother, but a very strange and sinister pair of sisters kidnap her instead. Tessa finds herself pulled into a "Downworld" of magic, spells, vampires and demons, as she searches for her brother. Rescued by an organisation calling itself The Enclave, Tessa discovers she's the focus of some very unwelcome attention, beings that will stop at nothing to possess power she didn't know she had.
I've never read any Cassandra Clare before, and the book starts off really strongly. I can see why people like her writing. I felt immersed in Victorian London, smelling it and tasting it along with Tessa. For the first few chapters, the book rattled along.
Then it all fell apart for a while. There must be close to a hundred pages of exposition after Tessa is rescued by The Enclave. She sits and wanders around The Institute, while everyone tells her what sort of world she's fallen into.
There's a chapter which really bugged me: Two of the main characters interview a businessman to see if they know anything about Tessa's brother, and other matters. It could have been covered with a reported speech conversation about as short as this: "We went to see Mortmain. He doesn't know where your brother is, but he seems to know more than he should about Downworld."
It didn't need a chapter. It didn't need a chapter that head-hops out of Tessa and into two other characters. Nowhere else in the book does it do that. It was about this point that I realised I was reading exposition and nothing much else was going on apart from Tessa falling in love with the (obligatory) two boys at the same time.
Hmmm, love triangle with supernatural creatures, where have I seen that one before? At least these two are the best of friends and don't let Tessa come between them.
However, the pages of exposition were quite subtly done - It did take me seventy pages to realise there wasn't much else going on – and by then the pace was picking up again, enough to keep me reading until the end of the book. There was a neat twist close to the climax that reverberated right back to the start of the book that kept things interesting.
One of the joys of the book is its strong sense of location and atmosphere. Clare writes wonderful little details – moonlight streaming through a window, the stench of The Thames, long shadows and dark corners – to wrap you up in the world. Although she does need to know that in England, in summertime, twilight goes on for hours. She has Tessa looking out of a window at sunset and a page of dialogue later it's dark. At least, I hope she thinks it's summertime – we don't get much daylight at eight pm in winter.
The characters are another of the strengths of the book. Will and Jem flash witticisms off each other like a comedy duo, lightening the mood with comic relief; Tessa gives as good as she gets back at them, refusing to back down when faced with the moody Will.
Will…he's an interesting character, a brooding Heathcliff and a Byronic hero, a wastrel like Sidney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities. Yet, like Sydney, you know his heart beats with passion and fire. I kept seeing Sydney Carton in every description of him – he does lean against things a lot, and has the same subtext of vulnerabilities, you sense. A 19th century Han Solo, waiting for his princess.
Jem was the yang to Will's ying – sensitive, caring, passionate. Fragile to Will's indestructible.
I never got the impression there was any contest between which of them Tessa would choose, so I couldn’t call the relationship they had a love triangle. Maybe a right angle one if it was; Tessa was always going to choose…ahh, but that would be a spoiler.
I knew going in that this was book one (Thanks for telling me on the cover – I hate books without a resolution that turn out to be trilogies), so not all of the questions were answered, not all of the villains dispatched or the threads wrapped up.
All in all, a skilful tale, filled with a great sense of place and atmosphere and witty dialogue. The exposition let the book down for me…it could have been fifty pages shorter.
I'm in no rush to read Book Two or Three (Why does everything need three books these days anyway?), but if I stumble across them one book-bereft day, I'll probably pick them up.