What Is ‘The Mortal Instruments’? A Guide for Grown-ups

Across the nation this week, adults will be bewildered at the sudden ubiquity of a YA series called The Mortal Instruments. The film version of the first book, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, opens on Wednesday, and it’s one of these pop culture phenomenons that, in spite of having a huge teenage following, doesn’t get discussed much in the culture at large. That’s because, although a lot of the pieces on the upcoming film are mentioning it, much like Fifty Shades of Gray, The Mortal Instruments began its life as fan-fiction. Specifically: Hermione-Draco fanfiction.
The author of the series is a woman named Cassandra Clare. As you may already suspect, that’s a nom de plume; her legal name is Judith Rumelt. Before she wrote her worldwide bestsellers, she was like the rest of us, which is to say she was a working stiff with a desk job and a really serious Internet habit. And in the process of that, she wrote something called The Draco Trilogy, which is no longer really available online, though in the further reaches of the Internet you can find it being passed around like samizdat. The plot’s a little… intricate, but suffice it to say it involves the formerly nefarious Draco being brought under the better influences of Harry and company. And, yes, “snogging” with Hermione.

What separates Clare from the rest of us jokers is that, as befits the daughter of Richard Rumelt, the Harry and Elsa Kunin Chair in Business and Society at UCLA Anderson School of Management, she savvily managed to monetize her Internet obsessions. In the mid-2000s, she got herself an agent, and signed a three-book deal. And then, by (reportedly) modifying The Draco Trilogy, she came up with the present Mortal Instruments books. Which promptly, because attribution standards are in flux and because this is the Internet, resulted in charges of plaigiarism. I offer no opinion as to these charges, because I haven’t had time to investigate them, but in general they seem to consist of the concern that Rumelt did not footnote all the references to popular culture her books make. In which case, well, welcome to fan-fiction.

What I can say is that The Mortal Instruments makes enough modifications to the Harry Potter universe that at this point its origin in fan-fiction is not terribly recognizable. The elements that link it — the alt-Draco Jace’s blonde coloring, “Mundies” sounding an awful lot like “Muggles” and “Valentine” an awful lot like “Voldemort” — are fewer than the entirely new elements. But the whole story’s a bit confusing. In essence, The Mortal Instruments is the story of Clary Fray, who through a chance encounter at a nightclub discovers that her mother and surrogate father are tied up with darker powers than she can ever comprehend. Specifically: her mother is a Shadowhunter, meaning she hunts demons, meaning Clary and she are in grave danger when the evil Valentine Morgenstern re-emerges. And on down the line.

The writing of the books is pretty pedestrian, plodding stuff, full of the faux-gravitas that is the lifeblood of middling fantasy epics, which is what this is. Tons of cliché are trucked onto every page. I have a feeling that the reason it hasn’t really broken into the adult mainstream is that the clichés are perhaps more apparent, though perhaps another reason is that people are simply too embarrassed to admit they read this sort of thing until someone respectable, Zadie Smith, say, admits to loving it as a guilty pleasure. Which, to date, no one has done with The Mortal Instruments, largely because what little inventiveness the books have is pretty ordinary: magic tattoos, portals carved in the air, werewolves.

Even if they do manage to be a bit hit, though, there is something deeply cynical at the heart of many YA franchises at the moment, I think, and one feels it here in particular. The commercial value of developing a blockbuster is so strong that the temptation to paint by numbers is tough to resist. The Mortal Instruments, actually, isn’t half as bad for this as Veronica Roth’s Divergent, which is so similar to The Hunger Games I’m surprised there hasn’t been litigation over it. It’s hard, too, to avoid remarking on the ironies that see a management guru’s daughter at the heart of all this. A recent interview in Forbes shows Rumelt/Clare herself can’t resist the parallel:

I do talk to my father about things I can do as an entrepreneur. We just had an interesting conversation about digital publishing. And I have a strong desire to have the publisher give away my first book in the series online because I believe it can be a loss leader. There are seven books in the series. If you give away the first for free, hopefully people will want the rest and buy those. It’s advertising. My dad asked, “Isn’t there a model for this kind of thing?”

Look: every author wants someone to buy their books, and business-savvy is never a bad thing. But one wishes that loss leaders and business models were conversations that were being had in service of books that are much better than The Mortal Instruments on the whole. But then: beggars for a good fantasy epic can’t be choosers, even in this loaded age.