Rising from the murky mists of strep throat (yes, yes, I know it’s a ‘kissing disease’ – move on, people) finally we come to the official start of the Pile o’ Books year with the letter ‘A’. Bienvenue, as they say at the Olympics. And we begin the official program with Cassandra Clare’s City of Ashes (A is for Ashes, geddit?) the second novel in her ‘The Mortal Instruments’ series.
Regular readers will remember that in a previous post, while begging for your forgiveness for my January tardiness, I said that I was loving my ‘A’ book. It’s a guilty pleasure if anything and it’s all excitement and emotion, all fantastical and demoniacal. And I’m compelled to point out that the other-world battle scene near the end is thrilling, top-shelf, save-us-from-the-demonic-hordes stuff. Very impressively constructed. But there is one thing about this series that puts a slight damper on my fiery enthusiasm for the Shadowhunters and their lycanthropic and vampirish brethren. Though I’m sure it says a lot more about me than the books.
I mentioned this in my post about the first book City of Bones; there’s just something about romance in teen fiction that makes me feel a bit icky. Now. Of course it didn’t when I was a teenager. Back then I found it either hopelessly romantic, intriguing or exciting. Occasionally I found it funny… I have a fond memory of my year seven home room teacher blowing her stack as our class cackled at a friend’s recitation of a scene in Judy Blume’s Forever. (He put aftershave where?) But I’m not referring to the realistic, honest, non-condescending and often heart-wrenching novels of Ms Blume when I talk about literary teenage romance and sex making me feel weird. Back then we giggled because we didn’t quite yet understand about sex, love and romantic relationships (not that we necessarily do now, but it was even less then) and because making the teacher lose it held cachet. These days I feel uncomfortable (though now it’s more of a furrowed brow than a giggle) because I find myself wondering at the ideas about teen love and relationships we’re perpetuating in some of our YA literature and wishing it was all a bit more Blumey.
So here are my top three ‘teen romance’ icky-fiers:
1. At 15 you will meet the person-of-your-dreams (POYD) who you will spend the rest of your life with. It’s destiny. Oh and you and POYD have some kind of barrier to your undying love, but it can never be extinguished, and all will see the righteousness of your love in the end. The example in these books is that the two main characters are siblings. Well, they think they are and we think they are too, and yet feelings are being felt… As a friend pointed out ‘all the characters in the book just accept that something is going on between them and that it’s ok, but it’s not’ – I guess one assumes we will discover they are not related, but at the moment, people, they are.
2. 15- and 16-years-olds talking about sex as if they know what it’s all about. I know we all knew everything when we were 16, but the thing you work out as an adult is that you actually knew shit. So why do adult authors like to instil in their teen characters the vocabulary, wit and life-knowledge of a 30-year-old? Did the abomination of Dawson’s Creek teach us nothing? Teens are smart, witty and awesome as they are. Write them so. And every now and then let them be a bit awkward, slightly clueless and perhaps a little honest about the whole physical romance thang. What 16-year-old guy is wanting to make love out of some unshakeable belief in his lifelong, heartfelt desire for his POYD? (Actually what 28-year-old guy… but I digress).
3. I don’t want to read about adolescents having sex (or talking about having sex). Putting all the philosophical, social, psychological and cultural arguments to one side, there is very little which appeals to me about the idea of two teenagers getting it on, however flowery, fantastical, romantic and oh-so-wonderful it is made to seem. I don’t know if this one just makes me seem cynical and lacking in empathy and imagination or what, but there you are. I do realise I’m not the target market, but still. And I understand that as readers, women especially, we often figuratively place ourselves in the character’s role and don’t think I’m immune to the idea of some handsome rune-covered boy seeing me as his POYD and wanting to … well, we digress again… it’s just that a part of my brain even when lost within a romantic (or sexy) paragraph will whisper in one of those stage whispers that isn’t a whisper ‘but they’re only 16’. And then I am re-icked.
City of Ashes is not as strong a novel as its predecessor but the strength of the final third (and needing to know what happens) will whirl me into the next one. And the above revelations of my own issues with love and relationships aside, the ick-factor of teen romance does not dominate the book. It’s much more about werewolves and fairies, warlocks and vampires, shadowhunters and their gleaming weapons, fantastical lands and monstrous acts. And battles. Battles against evil, battles of faith, battles of friendship and life, and even battles of the heart. Slight ick-factor or not, Cassandra Clare has created a world that is hard to resist wanting to be a part of. And you know that when that world is full of demonic presences and other things that go bump in the night and you still want to be a part of it, that the author must be doing something right.