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A beginner's guide to Cassandra Clare and her "Mortal Instruments"

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Even after the release of paranormal romance movies like Warm Bodies and Beautiful Creatures, the best contender for “the next Twilight” is a series whose first volume came out halfway through the Twilight saga and predates all of the movie adaptations. But the Mortal Instruments series didn't hatch in a dream: It ultimately has its roots in online fanfiction.

Penned by former fanfiction author Cassandra Clare, the first Mortal Instruments book came out in 2007 and promptly went to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Considering the number of popular Young Adult fantasy novels out there, it’s entirely possible that the Mortal Instruments books have passed you by, but that’s going to get a lot harder once the movie comes out next month. The first movie, that is. There could be at least two more. 

So, what’s the Mortal Instruments series about, and why is it so popular?

The Books

The Mortal Instruments series actually has more in common with urban fantasy literature than with recent YA bestsellers like Twilight or The Hunger Games. Starring 15-year-old Clary Fray (who, in classic Hollywood style, will be played by a 24-year-old in the movie), the storylines feature normal human teenagers discovering a world of magic, angels, demons, demon-hunters, and epic quests to defeat evil. Also, tons of hot guys (more on that later).

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Clary Fray begins the series as a normal teenager, but when her mother is kidnapped by a demon, she embarks on a quest to save her, meeting various supernatural characters along the way. Also, there’s the seemingly obligatory Young Adult series love triangle, this time between Clary, her best friend Simon, and the painfully attractive demon hunter Jace Wayland. 

The closest comparison seems to be with things like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (thanks to its ensemble cast of supernatural characters and wisecracking teens) and Harry Potter—the latter being particularly apt, since Cassandra Clare originally rose to fame as a fanfic writer, and many readers believe that her enormously popular Harry Potter fanfiction epic, the Draco Trilogy, shares many similarities with her original fiction.

Cassandra Clare: Fanfic Megastar

Yes, before Fifty Shades of Grey was even a twinkle in E.L. James’s eye, Cassandra Clare’s fanfiction was taking the Internet by storm. Her first hit was a series of Lord of the Rings parodies known as the “Very Secret Diaries," written in the style of Bridget Jones’ Diary, but the Draco Trilogy was her magnum opus.

Spanning hundreds of thousands of words, this Harry Potter fanfic series began as a story in which Harry and Draco accidentally swapped bodies and found themselves in a love triangle with Hermione. However, three volumes and more than half a million words later, it had turned into a fantasy epic. It was serialized from 2000 to 2006 (one year before the release of City of Bones, the first Mortal Instruments novel), and was massively influential in Harry Potter fandom—particularly for its characterization of Draco Malfoy as a beautiful, angsty antihero. In fact, Clare is credited with creating the iconic "Draco in Leather Pants" trope that has extended to all beautiful angsty anti-heroes since.

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Clare is an extremely controversial figure in fandom, thanks to a combination of her celebrity status in Harry Potter fandom (the Draco Trilogy was really popular) and the fact that she was at the center of several infamous flame wars and cyberbullying accusations. The Draco Trilogy was also widely known to have been partially plagiarized from various sources, most notably Pamela Dean's fantasy novel The Secret Country, from which Clare copied most of an entire chapter. According to Clare herself, she intended her plagiarism, which also included lines from other fantasy series and "Easter Egg" quips from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to be a form of homage to the sources. But fandom disagreed with her.

Clare made every attempt to distance her professional career from these accusations, including changing the spelling of her pen name ("Claire" to "Clare") because her Google search results kept turning up fandom posts about cyberbullying or plagiarism. This strategy was relatively effective, but fandom has a long memory, and the old Harry Potter-era accounts are still stored on sites like Fanlore and Fandom_Wank, if you know where to look. 

Because of Clare's history of plagiarism, a persistent but false rumor that pervades any discussion of her novels is that she based her original novels on the Draco Trilogy. This is untrue; The Mortal Instruments series has a plot that is entirely unrelated to either the plot of the Draco Trilogy (which begins with a bodyswapped Harry and Draco) or the plot of Harry Potter.

But complicating the matter is that Clare recycled parts of the Draco Trilogy and worked them into her first novel, City of Bones. Fans with long memories will realize that an entire involved backstory of the main character Jace is a word-for-word copy of the backstory Clare gave Draco in her fanfiction; and the final line of the book is—wait for it—a line that was originally used to describe the deep love that Harry and Draco had for one another. In its new form, it's a testament to the love between Mortal Instruments soulmates Clary and Jace:

He [Jace] made a sound like a choked laugh before he reached out and pulled her [Clary] into his arms. She was aware of Luke watching them from the window, but she shut her eyes resolutely and buried her face against Jace's shoulder. He smelled of salt and blood, and only when his mouth came close to her ear did she understand what he was saying, what he had been whispering before, and it was the simplest litany of all: her name, just her name.

It would be unfair to suggest that the Mortal Instruments series is a Harry Potter fanfic in the same way that Fifty Shades of Grey is a Twilight fanfic, because there’s that extra degree of separation. By the end of the Draco Trilogy, most of the main cast of Harry Potter characters were almost unrecognizable (e.g., Draco as a romantic hero rather than a cowardly racist bully), and Clare had thrown in plenty of her own worldbuilding—which was developed much further in the Mortal Instruments series. Does it really matter if City of Bones’ Clary and Jace resemble the Ginny and Draco of the Draco Trilogy? If anything, the Mortal Instruments books are a fanfic of her own fanfic, and thus have effectively become an entirely original work.

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Many people in Harry Potter fandom felt it was disingenuous for Clare to profit from a work that had been partially plagiarized from other sources, no matter how popular it was. However, while it's clear that her initial fanbase gave her a publishing boost, there doesn’t seem to be much crossover between the original Harry Potter fandom of the early 2000s and Clare’s current fanbase as a novelist—mostly because old-school Harry Potter fans tend to view her as such a controversial character.

Still, most of those older fans are, well… old. Now in their 20s and 30s, the Draco Trilogy’s original readers (and anti-fans) are hardly the Mortal Instruments’ target audience. Clare’s new fans are generally in their mid-teens, and most of them only seem to have a vague awareness of Clare’s involvement with fandom. 

The Movies

Starring Lily Collins, Lena Headey, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers and a selection of other totally hot dudes, City of Bones will be out at the end of August. A glance at Tumblr will let you know that Mortal Instruments fans are so, so ready for this, and the series’ fanbase is likely to skyrocket as soon as the movie comes out. This is a story that combines the romance of Twilight with the badassery of The Hunger Games and the mythology of Supernatural. In other words: It’s Tumblr fandom dynamite.

The movie is a direct adaptation of the first book in the series, meaning that it covers Clary’s discovery of the supernatural world, as well as her first meeting with the handsome and mysterious Jace. Judging by the trailers, it’s going to be pretty action-heavy and will feature the successful Twilight/Teen Wolf formula of lots of teenage people looking very dramatic while explaining supernatural forces to each other. Also, snazzy leather outfits for the demon hunters. 

But like the books, the movies are not without controversy. The movie’s first round of dispute came with the casting of bisexual wizard Magnus Bane, who is 50 percent demon (and 100 percent gorgeous). Mortal Instruments fandom loves Magnus Bane, and many fans pictured him as being played by Adam Lambert in the movie adaptation. So why did the filmmakers end up casting Taiwanese actor Godfrey Gao?

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Well, maybe because the character is Asian. In fact, Cassandra Clare was so opposed to the idea of racebending his character that she threatened to distance herself from the movie if a white actor was cast in the role. As she explained on her blog:

“There are not that many parts for actors who are not white — even less substantive ones. Taking those things away by casting Magnus as white and talking about him as white does cause actual pain to actual people — and to what end? Why? Why send the message you only want to read about white people and only want to see white people on your screens?”

So, it seems pretty unlikely that the Mortal Instruments movies will suffer from the same racebending issues as things like The Hunger Games and Warm Bodies

One final movie detail: Jamie Campbell Bower, the actor who plays the Draco Malfoy-inspired Jace Wayland in City of Bones, previously had a minor part in one of the Harry Potter movies. During filming, he met and eventually became engaged to Bonnie Wright, the actress who played Ginny Weasley. They broke up in 2012, and he is now dating City of Bones costar Lily Collins, whose character was based on Ginny Weasley, Draco Malfoy’s love-interest in the Draco Trilogy.

Cassandra Clare, what a tangled fandom web you weave.

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