Here’s a thing about me: I’m not especially big on romance in books. Sometimes it’s fine, and I even find myself enjoying it in some circumstances, but most of the time I do not. Here’s another thing about me: I enjoy complaining about romance. I think I partially have read many of Cassandra Clare’s various series (The Mortal Instruments, The Infernal Devices, The Dart Artifices, and The Last Hours) so that I can dramatically roll my eyes at the characters’ various love lives (the other reason is that the books are enjoyable. I recommend them despite my romantic cynicism). Having just finished her latest book, Chain of Iron, I have decided to use my limited romantic knowledge to tackle romantic tropes that appear and how the various series handle them. There are spoilers aplenty ahead.
The Love Triangle
One thing Cassandra Clare does well is love triangles. Two people fighting desperately over a third? Not on her watch. Will, Jem, and Tessa and Christina, Mark, and Kieran spring to mind. In both instances, everyone eventually wins, whether by being an immortal warlock who can date one guy at a time or being polyamorous, your situation will end up just fine. I believe there are a few instances of the typical love triangle, with Simon, Maia, and Isabel, but the others leave a considerably greater impression. I’m not sure James, Cordelia, and Matthew count as a love triangle, since Cordelia and Matthew have been entirely platonic so far, despite his feelings for her. With the inclusion of Grace as well, it’s, at certain points, more of a love square or rectangle or something.
I don’t like Jace, at least not in City of Bones, City of Ashes, and City of Glass. I feel sorry for him, of course, but since his main coping mechanism seems to be upsetting everyone around him, he’s not exactly someone I’d want to meet. I’d put him in the category of the ‘bad boy’. He falls in love and his toxic traits are healed, but not before he insults a lot of people, including Clary. I’d place Will Herondale, or at least his persona, here as well. In both these instances, a lot of what Jace and Will do is explained by their desire to protect those around them from themselves, but the ‘bad boy’ trope is terrible precisely because it excuses this sort of behavior. It often shows people that it’s fine to enter fraught relationships and that it’s ok for them to put up with a lot of bad behavior from their partners. I vastly prefer Julian, James, and Jem (What’s with all the ‘j’s’?) as main love interests because they are considerably kinder and are attentive to the needs of their partners’ as well as their own.
Love Conquers All!
The power of love is very much a constant presence in Cassandra Clare’s books. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since love is wonderful and whatever, but it does lead me to a couple of issues I’ve noticed. First off, any character who doesn’t believe in the power of love usually comes across as a terrible person. Woolsey Scott from The Infernal Devices comes to mind. In The Last Hours as well, Anna’s avoidance of romantic relationships comes across as something that will be ‘fixed’ by the end of the series. Perhaps I am noticing patterns where there aren’t any, but I’m hoping for more significant characters who don’t feel the need to be romantically — or sexually, though they aren’t the same — involved with other characters in the future. Cassandra Clare does a great job at being inclusive, so it’s possible it’s coming soon.
Passion, but Everywhere
This is sort of similar to the ‘love conquers all’ trope, but there are quite a lot of people being sucked into the throes of passion on these pages. Even characters in the middle of important missions cannot escape the desire to aggressively make out with whoever their love interest is. Is this actually a trope or something unique to these books? As someone who doesn’t read romance much, it’s hard to say, but it certainly happens a lot.
Evil Seductress Invader
I am very thankful that this trope doesn’t seem to make too many appearances, but it does appear. Love triangles, I’ve noticed, usually seem to involve one woman and two men, and when they involve two women and one man, they often seem to drift into this territory, where the reader cheers for the victory of one of the women while regarding the other as an evil invader. The main instance I can think of this is with Grace and Cordelia. What’s interesting about this portrayal though is that Cordelia, our heroine, treats Grace respectfully, even if she resents her. There’s no vicious, demeaning competition between two women. In general, the seductress trope is rather tired and ties in with sexist beliefs about women being evil. In the first three books of the Mortal Instruments, Clary and the other female characters don’t get along well – though they become closer as time passes go – but later female characters like Tessa and Sophie, Emma and Christina, and Cordelia and Lucie care a lot about each other and break past stereotypes that discourage female friendship.
Bury Your Gays
This isn’t exactly a romantic trope, but it’s a romantic adjacent trope, so I’ll include it here. This unfortunate pattern really needs to be stamped out of existence because of its messages about queer people being unable to obtain happiness, but thankfully Cassandra Clare is not part of this problem. Unless I’m forgetting something, all her queer characters besides Raphael are still alive and enjoying life — at least once their story arcs are over. Their storylines, besides Alec’s original arc and somewhat Diana’s, even go beyond the characters being depressed about being queer, thankfully, and they’re allowed to pursue other agendas.
The “oh, he/she/they couldn’t possibly love me!” trope. This is everywhere. I guess it’s necessary to make the pre-romantic chase exciting, or otherwise people would be happily falling into relationships everywhere and the books would be considerably shorter. I think the main lesson here is that communication is key.
Again, I really do enjoy reading these books. Some of these tropes even aren’t that bad — though a few make me want to pull out my hair. It’s when they cross the line into being sexist or homophobic that they become problematic, and Cassandra Clare does a great job adapting her writing style to become ever more positively affirming and inclusive so that romantic tropes can keep on existing in their least problematic variants.