A new mystery thwarts Cordelia and the Merry Thieves of London
The newest installment of the Shadowhunter Chronicles by Cassandra Clare, Chain of Iron, hits all of those notes that made the original series so popular. New time period, (semi) new place, new drama, and new characters populate the second installment of The Last Hours trilogy. Cassandra Clare continues to develop an ever-complex Shadowhunter history by bringing the audience into the lives of the relatives of characters from her other works. If you’re like me, you love a good literary family tree and Clare continues to deliver. In this newest book, Cordelia Carstairs and the Merry Thieves are yet again up against a mysterious entity that threatens their lives in 1903 London.
While murder mystery is a Shadowhunter staple, the romantic complication of the series is something never before seen in a Shadowhunters novel. Clare’s biggest hold-over from Chain of Gold is the magical bracelet worn by James Herondale that makes him believe he is in love with Grace Blackthorn. It’s very obvious that James is in love with Cordelia Carstairs, though the bracelet keeps him from truly understanding this. Chain of Iron begins with the marriage of James and Cordelia—a marriage of convince after Cordelia claimed to have spent the night with James in the last book because he needed an alibi. James, while believing he is in love with Grace, agrees to marry Cordelia for just one year to save her reputation (Yes, 1900s Shadowhunters also held archaic views of women and their “reputations”).
So there’s already quite a messy setup: a boy believing he is in love with one girl, while marrying the girl he actually loves, but living under a spell that does not let him understand his true feelings. To make matters worse, Cordelia is also in love with James and believes he does not return her feelings.
This soapy drama is central to the story and gives our young characters more freedom to move on their own. As a married couple, James and Cordelia now live together and do small domestic things like play chess and read books. However, seeing as the story is about demon hunting teenagers, there has to be more violent complications. Shadowhunters on patrol begin to be randomly murdered by what appears to be a non-demon enemy. This means someone—possibly a Shadowhunter among them—is targeting their own. As always, the teenagers take it upon themselves to try and solve the mystery.
Chain of Iron is a character driven book, and the characters are certainly the highlight of the text. There’s nothing like a close knit group of heartfelt demon-hunting teenagers to really draw one in. However, the book can tend to feel overpopulated when more characters are brought into the fold. Constantly tracking the James- Cordelia-Matthew-Grace love-square (is that a thing?), the Thomas-Alastair-Charles love triangle, the will-they-won’t-they of Anna and Ariadne, and the romance and attempted necromancy plot line of Lucie and Jesse is is kind of exhausting. Although I adore the characters, sometimes I wonder if there is, in fact, too many of them trying to exist at the forefront of the narrative. The relegation of some characters to smaller roles may in fact be beneficial for giving the reader more plot.
James and Cordelia are central protagonists. Lucie and the Merry Thieves are lovable secondary characters. With so much time spent on everyone’s personal lives, it often feels as if the mystery murder plot is taking a backseat. I mean, the murders occur without rhyme or reason, and often at moments when the characters just need something else to do. The whodunnit plot means everyone is a suspect, but Chain of Iron works pretty hard to make sure none of the super central characters are really suspects to the reader. This in turn eliminates a lot of high stakes speculation.
While James is off living a complicated married life, the other Herondale child is off on her own journey in this installment. Lucie is determined to bring Jesse Blackthorn back to life, which creates a tenuous team-up between herself and the elusive Grace Blackthorn.
My biggest qualm with this book is the relationships between women. I’m dying for Clare to write a female friendship that is shown instead of just spoken about. Although Chain of Iron likely passes the Bechdel test, the friendship between the two central female characters falls to the background. Lucie and Cordelia are often split, and even when Lucie teams up with Grace there is deep hostility and a complete focus on saving a male character.
Chain of Iron does little work to establish the female friendships, mostly just stating that they are strong and not giving them the space to prove it. Lucie and Cordelia are meant to become parabatai soon, but we seldom see them interact. Most of their interactions surround either discussing (or deliberately avoiding discussing) their romantic relationships, or having conversations that reaffirm that they are, in fact friends.
The problem is that we do not see how they are friends. Most of the time they spend apart or just thinking about how they are close friends. Male characters are the shadowy ghost (sometimes literally) in all of their conversations. Why are Lucie and Cordelia close beyond the bounds of the men around them? How does their dynamic function independently of their other relationships?
Male characters in this story have deep, detailed, and intimate relationships with one another and with the female characters. We know why the Merry Thieves are friends, and we get to see them in action showcasing the bonds they share with one another. Consequently, the conversations with men move the plot forward far more than the conversations solely between women.
I wanted more from the Shadowhunter women of 1900s London, and I hope Chain of Thorns delivers.
Regardless, Chain of Iron is a fun read. My favorite moments include Christopher Lightwood going to the Shadow Market with his little shopping list and Will Herondale asking Tessa for permission to chase after his frenemy demon.
Clare writes camaraderie well, and all of the moments where the Merry Thieves and company gather in a study or around a fireplace are deeply enjoyable. I will not spoil the ending, but there is certainly going to be a lot of drama for this friends group to sort through in the final installment.
Perhaps not revolutionary—yet immensely enjoyable—Chain of Iron shows that no matter what time period we’re living in, the fate of the world somehow always falls into the hands of a lovable group of teenagers.