Jace: Good luck with your complicated love life.
aline: Same, dude. Same.
Oh, Jace Herondale-Wayland-Lightwood-Morgenstern, Shadowhunter by day, Shadowhunters’ sex therapist by night. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen.
It’s not like we’re lacking perversion in other relationships. There’s also Simon and Maia, who date even though he’s a vampire and she’s a werewolf and they are destined enemies, and Simon and Isabelle, the vampire and the Shadowhunter (shark and shark hunter is coming, I know it!).
Demons, Shadowhunters, vampires, and werewolves are not real. (audience: Glad you’ve cleared that up for us, Sarah. This is such an insightful essay!) No, really, but listen, this is important, because supernatural creatures have often been used as analogies for those seen as the Other— people of color, people with religious beliefs different from Christian, people who aren’t heterosexual—because it was seen as taboo to actually represent them. It is not taboo anymore—or at least it shouldn’t be—and this means that supernatural analogies for representation and actual representation exist in the same books, often in an overlapping way. Maia is half African American and a werewolf, Magnus is half Asian and a warlock, Jem is half Chinese and a Shadowhunter, Simon is Jewish and a vampire.
I like the supernatural as analogy fine—for instance, I love when Simon is trying to come out as a vampire using the language of coming out from a g*y pamphlet—but analogies work only up to a point. Having a supernatural character “come out” isn’t actually the same as a character coming out as gay, and can’t be treated entirely as if it is. Simon shows this is an imperfect analogy by how he adapts the language. He cannot leave it as is because that won’t work. “The undead are just like you and me…Possibly more like me than you” (City of Ashes). The lust of a vampire for blood and a person for sex are ultimately different, and that has to be clear. Being a person of color and being g*y are different things, though, again, they can overlap—in Aline’s case, for instance—and that has to be clear. Fancying people of both sexes and fancying your sibling, also two very different situations! Hella not the same.
There are, however, commonalities. Stretching over both the supernatural and the real in these books is the issue of desire as a forbidden thing. There are rules of desire in this imaginary world: Werewolves are not meant to feel desire for vampires, and Shadowhunters are not meant to feel desire for Downworlders. Also accurately represented, however, is the attitude of some to desire in the real world. Tessa in the Infernal Devices worries that she shouldn’t be feeling hot in the pantalettes for a guy—let alone, oh horrors, somebody pass me the smelling salts—TWO guys. Some think women should not feel desire at all, or if they do should feel it toward One Man to Rule Their Lady Parts Alone. Some think women should feel no impulses toward violence. Some think that people should not feel desire for people of the same sex, and Shadowhunters actually have a hidebound attitude about that. Some think people should not feel anything more than desire—should not feel love— for those of a different social class or a different race.
We see all of that in Cassandra Clare’s books. By showing us a myriad of different desires and by showing the people who have them as, in most cases, good and heroic people, these books let people who have desires condemned by others know they can and should be part of stories. They let those who have conventional desires put themselves mentally into the position of characters who do not. We have Magnus “Freewheeling Bisexual” Bane, and we also have Isabelle “Nothing Less Than Seven Inches, That’s My Motto” Lightwood, an expert fighter who has been around the block and underneath the kitchen table, baby, who loves boys and loves pink and loves weaponry. She is no less heroic than any of the male Shadowhunters: She is never shamed for her desires. She is not elevated above all other women as the sole badass babe, though: Clary is not a trained fighter, but she brings other skills to the table. Clary, Isabelle, and Maia are all shown as having different strengths and growing slowly closer because of them. And Clary, Isabelle, and Maia all have sexy desires that they sometimes act on and sometimes do not, and either way, it’s okay.
The message of all these different portrayals of all these different desires is that we cannot control our desires and that no desire is inherently bad. Some desires should not be acted on (my desire to murder everyone I see before noon, I definitely have to get a lid on. I’m going through postmen like nobody’s business), but nobody should be condemned for what they feel. And if the people involved are both enjoying themselves and want to act on those feelings…that’s fine too. Take Isabelle and Simon’s first time at the all-youcan-bite buffet:
isabelle: You should bite me.
simon: Well, I never.
isabelle: It’s cool, bro, I’m consenting, and consent is sexy!
simon: But surely I should not treat my lady friend as a handy snack! You are not string cheese! You are not a fruit cup! You are not a macrobiotic yogurt drink!…Sorry, I miss human food sometimes. isabelle: No, you should totally bite me. The conflation between the vampire bite and sex is totally a literary archetype.
simon: But I never fanged a girl before. I mean, I fanged Jace that one time, but I was all dizzy and we were on a boat—you know how wild those cruises can get—and it meant nothing and he was honestly more into it than I was.
isabelle: I believe it. Noted pervert, our Jace. Now fang my brains out.
I swear, my hand to God and Girl Scouts, that the events I have just related actually occur in the book, just as written (Isabelle-fanging in City of Lost Souls and Jace-fanging in City of Ashes, to be specific and precise about my fanging). I admit that the dialogue is pretty much 100 percent Sarahproduced made-up. I couldn’t resist: I love a make-out scene.
I will segue from talking about making out (only briefly, I swear) to talk about family. (Family who aren’t making out, guys; come on, work with me here.) The Mortal Instruments and Infernal Devices series abound with examples of nontraditional family units. Jace was adopted at the age of twelve, and there are strains from both sides—fear that Jace’s allegiance belongs to his birth parent, parental fear from Maryse Lightwood that her sins or the birth parent’s sin will taint Jace. But Maryse loves him, and sings him the song she sang the children she gave birth to, because he’s hers. Charlotte, much too young to be a mother, is nevertheless placed in loco parentis to Will and Jem: While it’s not motherhood, it’s guardianship, and there’s love and respect there on all sides. Mortmain, the villain of the Infernal Devices, clearly adored his adoptive warlock parents. Even Valentine, the chief villain of the first Mortal Instruments trilogy, whom we find out in City of Glass adopted Jace (OR DID HE? Sorry, no, he did, go on), genuinely loves his son:
Valentine: My boy. My sweet boy. I could not love thee, dear, so much did I not love megalomaniacally taking over the world more.
J ace: I’m going to be in therapy forever.
Valentine: I stab you to death now. With a heart full of love! Know this: I would still totally stab you if you were biologically mine. It makes no difference to me: I am devoted to you, and immensely crazypants.
Jace: Call a doctor and a psychiatrist…
Valentine: Stab, stab, XOXOXO, Daddy.
This is borne out again by the fact Valentine does not love Clary, who actually is biologically his daughter. He blames her for her mother leaving, which, putting aside the surface crazed-demon-hunter-on-mission-to-take-over-world issue, is relatable again: the parent who resents a child for taking up the other parent’s attention and affection. In return, Clary doesn’t love him: In fact, she murders him for being a big boyfriend-killing world-take-overing speciesist jerk. He’s not her father in any real sense: Luke Garroway the werewolf is her father, if anyone is. And it is Luke who says perhaps the truest and most important thing in the books, making explicit their message, in City of Fallen Angels: “Be what you are. No one who really loves you will stop.”
Love is acceptance, and treating people right. Sebastian, Clary’s bio brother (whom she totally also makes out with, and who is also a bit demonish, and whose real name is Jonathan but I’m sticking with Sebastian because my motto is once you murdered someone and assumed their identity, murderous finders’ keepers!), is actually related to Clary and Valentine, and in the Infernal Devices, Tessa and Nathaniel are somewhat related, and Benedict Lightwood is definitely Gabriel and Gideon’s father. Doesn’t really work out well! Sebastian, Valentine, and Benedict are bad people. (Except that Sebastian is my baby demon honey lamb, but that’s not what this essay is about, however: Don’t blame the demon-blood-infested player, hate the demon-bloodinfesting game.) Simon is blood related to both his mother and his sister, but his mother rejects him in City of Fallen Angels and his sister accepts his vampirosity in City of Lost Souls. Embracing people for who they are is the key.
The portrayal of all these untraditional families and strange friendships conveys this: Blood doesn’t matter. Tradition doesn’t matter, and following the accustomed forms and rules of family doesn’t matter. Love is what matters. Love is the song you hear even while you sleep, and you know you are healed, and safe, and where you belong.
So what does all this talk about love and desire and strangeness really mean, in the larger scheme of things rather than in the personal-opinions arena? (Example of a possible personal opinion: “I Read This Book of Essays and I Really Think Sarah Rees Brennan Is a Demented Sex Fiend.”) I’m not saying: These books are a lot about desire, keep them away from children! I’m saying: These books are a lot about desire in all its forms and about not condemning it, and I think that’s valuable for teenagers—for everyone.
Let’s examine what Cassandra Clare has actually done, through this addressing of love and desire. She’s written one of the very few (I count two1) young adult books with an Asian character important enough—Jem Carstairs, via being one of the romantic leads—to get his own cover, to hit the bestseller list (Clockwork Prince). She has written what I would say is the most popular g*y relationship in the whole YA fiction realm. And is popularity important? Yes, yes it is. A book is more likely to be popular if it’s heteronormative; it means there are fewer obstacles in the book’s way (stores and festivals refusing to stock the book, less fancy marketing for the book). Consider how nobody’s g*y that we know of in Twilight or the Hunger Games… consider Dumbledore being revealed as gay—but not, crucially, in the books themselves—in Harry Potter. Think about what a book being popular really means. (It doesn’t mean the author gets to buy a golden helicopter.) It means that a lot of people read it—a lot of people get the message that, for instance, g*y relationships shouldn’t exist by reading books where they don’t exist. I wish none of this were true, but it is; and since it is, I’m so happy that Cassandra Clare’s books are in the world, and that they have been so wildly successful and beloved.
Cassandra Clare has achieved an enormous amount, because she’s been able to send out this message to so many readers: Whoever you are, whatever you want—it’s okay, and you are okay. You can be better than okay: You can be a hero.
We need more scandalous books by deviant wenches to tell us that.