I could go on, but the net effect of all of these things is that cities will always feel uncanny, if you are inclined to be aware of the uncanny at all. In Clary’s New York, this otherness, this sense of crossing into someone else’s terrain, redraws the map of the city. Chinatown is no longer defined by its Chinese denizens but by the pack of werewolves that dwells in the old Second Precinct building. Spanish Harlem is where the vampires make their home in an abandoned hotel. Central Park is full of fey. Industrial Brooklyn, a mishmash of artist spaces, oddball storage buildings, and manufactories that to me always looks to be in a strange state of gorgeous arrested decay, is where the High Warlock (hundreds of years old and himself an intriguing mishmash of demon and human) lives and works.
It makes such good sense in the books because these are places that feel unfamiliar in reality to anyone who hasn’t spent time getting to know them. It’s a short leap from this occasionally unsettling unfamiliarity to the enticing possibility of the presence of something truly otherworldly, something fantastic, something darkly magical dwelling behind at least one of the thousands of windows or the thousands of faces you pass on any given day.
In Jentsch’s and Freud’s essays on the uncanny, the revelation of the unheimlich is usually characterized by unease and fear—normal, understandable reactions. But the beauty of fantasy is that it allows the protagonist to pass through fear to come to know this different reality and to find a place in it. It allows the protagonist to accept the true, occult (again in the hidden sense) character of the place, to reconcile the mundane and the uncanny elements into a whole, to let go of preconceptions and expectations and open himor herself to experience the full reality of the place. It is perhaps particularly appropriate that, after several hundred pages of jamais-vu experiences, Clary is allowed to experience the opposite: Magnus Bane presents her with the Gray Book and instructs her to stare at one particular rune. “Look at it,” he says, “until you feel something change in your mind.” It takes long moments, but then abruptly the unfamiliar Mark on the page has meaning. Clary does not suddenly discover that she has known this Mark all along, but she is suddenly able to understand its significance.
In stories like these, where the setting is a character, a major part of the protagonist’s evolution is the passage by which she, suddenly marooned right at home in a place that isn’t what she thought it was, must learn to love (or at least accept) the city. Only then can she truly take part in shaping the narrative. And there’s no going back either. In the scenario of the uncanny city, the protagonist isn’t questing for the portal home; she’s questing for a way to be at home. This is a powerful message to carry back to the real world; for those who have experienced the alienation that the sense of unheimlich (when related to place) describes for anything longer than a fleeting moment, there are only two options: Go elsewhere, or find a way to survive, to belong, and, hopefully, to thrive. There isn’t a portal that can whisk you home if you’re already there, so the challenge is to understand and to adapt and to find the homely even in that which is not like home.
The final scene of City of Bones is a lovely visualization of this: Clary is presented with a panoramic view of the city, alive with all the things she can now see and sense but still visible and recognizable as the same place in which she grew up:
And there it was spread out before her like a carelessly opened jewelry box, this city more populous and more amazing than she had ever imagined: There was the emerald square of Central Park, where the faerie courts met on midsummer evenings; there were the lights of the clubs and bars downtown, where the vampires danced the nights away at Pandemonium; there were the alleys of Chinatown down which the werewolves slunk at night, their coats reflecting the city’s lights. There walked warlocks in all their bat-winged, cat-eyed glory, and here, as they swung out over the river, she saw the darting flash of multicolored tails under the silvery skin of the water, the shimmer of long, pearl-strewn hair, and heard the high, rippling laughter of the mermaids.
Jace turned to look over his shoulder, the wind whipping his hair into tangles. “What are you thinking?” he called back to her.
“Just how different everything down there is now, you know, now that I can see.”
“Everything down there is exactly the same,” he said, angling the cycle toward the East River. They were heading toward the Brooklyn Bridge again. “You’re the one that’s different.”
…Her stomach dropped out from under her as the silver river spun away and the spires of the bridge slid under her feet, but this time Clary kept her eyes open, so that she could see it all.
And for possibly the first time, the sight is truly beautiful.
Kate Milford is the author of The Boneshaker, The Broken Lands, and The Kairos Mechanism. She has written for stage and screen and, thanks to a deep and abiding love for strange and uncanny places, is also an occasional travel columnist for the Nagspeake Board of Tourism and Culture. She can be found online at www.clockworkfoundry.com.
I love Sarah’s essay because it cuts to the heart of the nature of a true warrior: the ability to work with what you have, and the ability to adapt. I don’t just mean what you have materially, but what you have inside you: your background, the skills you possess, your ability to think on your feet. While everything else in Clary’s life is turned upside down when she discovers she’s a Shadowhunter, Clary’s weapon of choice remains unchanged: art.
Beyond runes, which have remained the same for centuries, there is no precedent for Shadowhunters using art as a weapon. Luckily, Clary’s pretty good at setting her own precedents. This essay is a great articulation of how she goes about it.
The art of War
Never Underestimate the Girl with the Sketchbook
Everyone loves a kick-ass girl. (Well—maybe not her enemies, but you know what I mean.) Whether her strength and fighting prowess come from years of training, supernatural powers, or a combination of both, she’s
a force to be reckoned with—and admired. We envy her seemingly effortless domination of her enemies, her killer instinct, and how cool she is under pressure. She has the strength and endurance of an Olympic athlete and the knockout punch of an action hero. Who wouldn’t want to be like that?
But most of us, unless we’re lucky enough to be born into a clan of ninjas, will never be that kind of kick-ass. I know I’m not. I could hit someone with a baseball bat if I had to, but I’d probably just hurt myself if I borrowed Luke’s kindjal.
When I was sixteen, I dreamed of being a kick-ass girl— but my reality was the complete opposite. I was totally inept at weapons, fighting, and anything sports related. I could barely walk in high heels, let alone deliver a roundhouse kick while wearing them. And unlike the amazingly fierce Isabelle Lightwood, I didn’t spend my teen years learning the fine points of demon slaying.
No, like a lot of fantasy-loving kids, I spent my teen years reading and drawing on any piece of paper you put in front of me. I read comics full of women with superpowers and fantasy novels with sword-wielding her**nes on the cover. I might have felt like I was a hero at heart, but I wasn’t anything like the characters I read about. Psylocke and Storm would have laughed me right out of the Danger Room, and no self-respecting party of heroes would have let me join their quest.
Which is why I love Clary. Clary is every bookish, fantasy-loving girl who grows up wielding a pencil and a sketchbook instead of mutant powers or a sword. She’s completely unprepared when she’s thrust into the world of Shadowhunters, Downworlders, and demons. She doesn’t know their rules, she’s never heard of runes, and while she can use a knife as well as any panicked person backed into a corner, that’s not much help against a demon horde. But Clary is also determined, super stubborn, and courageous. Just try to tell her she can’t do something. When she finds out that Simon (currently in the form of a helpless rat) has been taken to a hotel full of vampires, she doesn’t hesitate; she decides to save him, and she would go alone if she had to. Because Clary never abandons her friends. Even when she doesn’t know how she’s going to help, she’s willing to put herself at risk to try, because, in her mind, that’s what friends do.
Clary isn’t particularly fast or strong. She’s not skilled with weaponry, and she doesn’t have magic, fangs, or claws in her arsenal. But Clary’s a hero at heart—and that means she’ll find a way to be the hero she needs to be, to look beyond the skills she doesn’t have and draw on the skills she does have to ultimately save the day.
Draw, by the way, is the key word here.
The Girl with the Sketchbook
“But you—you’re dead weight, a mundane.” [Alec] spit the word out as if it were an obscenity. “No,” Clary said. “I’m not. I’m Nephilim—just like you.”
His lip curled up at the corner. “Maybe,” he said. “But with no training, no nothing, you’re still not much use, are you?”
—City of Bones
Clary lacks special training—and to some people (like our friend Alec here), that means she’s useless. She’s not a warrior, so she can’t get the job done. And Alec isn’t the only one who feels that way. There are plenty of people who think that if a her**ne isn’t physically dominating her opponent, she’s not a fighter, and she’s less heroic than a girl who’s kick-ass or tough. But not every girl can be Isabelle Lightwood or Katniss Everdeen. I think the true measure of a hero is what a person does with what they have, how hard they’re willing to fight, and how far they’re willing to go to set things right.
When we first meet Clary, her extraordinarily mundane talents include art, being a great best friend, and vetoing Simon’s crappy band names. (Sea Vegetable Conspiracy? No.) She’s the kind of person who doesn’t hesitate to help someone in trouble—like when she decides to come to a club kid’s rescue when she spots two armed Shadowhunters following him into a storage room at Pandemonium—but I doubt she thinks of herself as a hero.
And yet, when her normal life is ripped away from her, and her reality expands to include demons, Shadowhunters, and Downworlders, she doesn’t hide from it. There’s no doubt that she would be safer if she stayed holed up in the Institute (well, providing she stayed far away from traitorous Hodge and I’ll-claw-your-face-off Hugin). No one would fault her if she wanted to sit back and wait for the Clave to deal with Valentine and rescue her mother. Just the fact that demons exist is a lot to take in—no one expects Clary to bounce back from that revelation and fight. If anything, they expect her to be a liability.
Because, as a girl with Shadowhunter lineage but no training, what can she do that they can’t do better?
But Clary is not a hole-up-and-hide kind of girl. She’s passionate and loyal and brave, and the fact that she’s not a warrior doesn’t mean she’s useless. It just means she has a different set of skills to bring to the table—skills most people probably wouldn’t associate with winning a war. But you know what? Those are the skills Clary has to work with. So she does.
She might not have been raised to be a hero, but she’s so determined, and has so much heart, that she finds a way to be a hero anyway, using a talent she’s had all along:
The Artist’s Way
Art is a kind of magic. Creativity is mysterious, even to artists, who might be able to name their inspiration but can’t always explain how their influences and experiences came together to create this new thing—this painting, this story, this song. If you break art down to its base elements, there’s nothing miraculous about the letters of the alphabet or a drop of paint. But an artist can put those elements together to create something powerful, something that moves us and withstands the test of time. A work that no one but that artist could have imagined, let alone created.
Clary has that magic in her. She grew up seeing strange things like pixies yet never remembering them, thanks to the block Magnus Bane put on her mind. Even before Clary realized she had the Sight and that there is more to the world than meets the average eye, she was searching for something beyond the reality she recognized and remembered—and she found that something more in art. As Simon says to Clary in City of Bones, “All you’ve ever needed is your pencils and your imaginary worlds.”
It’s hard to imagine Clary without Simon—he’s her best friend, and she would go to the ends of the earth to save him. So if Simon feels that Clary would be fine on her own, with just her art and her imagination to keep her company, that’s a testament to how essential art is to Clary’s life.
Art is magic, and art is powerful. Art saves lives—I really believe that. It gives us courage and compassion we might not have on our own.
When Clary’s mother, Jocelyn, is kidnapped by Valentine, Clary is in desperate need of some extra courage and strength. And in that crisis, she turns to art—the thing that most connects her and her artist mother—to guide her. Art is Clary’s foundation; it steadies her while the rest of her world is changing. So much so that when she’s living at the Institute and feeling overwhelmed, she hugs her sketchbook for comfort, because it’s such a familiar part of her life.
Art also helps Clary to cope with the strange and magical things she encounters. When she becomes conscious of glamours, she thinks like an artist in order to see through them: “Clary let her mind relax. She imagined herself taking one of her mother’s turpentine rags and dabbing at the view in front of her, cleaning away the glamour as if it were old paint” (City of Bones).
Clary even makes important discoveries while she’s doodling. One night she sketches some runes next to a drawing of an angel-winged Jace, then feels feathers when she brushes her fingers across the paper. Seeing that she can use runes to make a drawing come to life, Clary wonders if she can use runes and art to put an object into a page of her sketchbook. She tests her theory by drawing a coffee mug, then placing the mug on top of her drawing and sketching some runes on the page. Once she sees that it works, she realizes that must be how her mother hid the Mortal Cup from Valentine: by putting it into a painting. And that means Clary knows how to get it out.