Warning: minor spoilers for Chain of Thorns by Cassandra Clare. No major plot spoilers, but if you’d like to go in completely blind, don’t read this!
When you’re as familiar with an author’s work as I am with Cassandra Clare’s, you get pretty good at predicting things. One thing I’ve noticed after well over a decade of reading The Shadowhunter Chronicles is that I always end up disappointed in the last book in a series the first time I read it. It took me a long time to be okay with Jem’s ending in Clockwork Princess, which I now consider my favorite book of all time. I initially struggled to accept what happened to Simon in City of Heavenly Fire, but now consider that book easily the strongest installment in the Mortal Instruments series. I was angry and frustrated after reading Queen of Air and Darkness, but came to appreciate it years later upon re-reading the whole series. I’ve learned that you have to take each series for what it is, and not compare it to the other ones.
It is with all this in mind that I say that my initial reaction to Chain of Thorns, the third and final book in the Last Hours trilogy, is disappointment.
I might learn to appreciate this book after I’ve had a bit of distance from it. I certainly didn’t hate it. I even wrote in my review of Chain of Iron almost two years ago that I would probably get tired of the no-plot-just-vibes style of the Last Hours trilogy just as I got tired of the all-plot-no-vibes style of the Dark Artifices trilogy by the end, and that’s kind of what happened. There’s hope. But what feels different this time around is that my disappointment doesn’t stem from anything that actually happened in the book. Rather, I’m disappointed about just how little happened at all.
The Last Hours is a very character-based story, so it’s no surprise that the incredibly large cast of characters is the main focus of the final book. The miscommunication that plagued the second book is finally put to the side, as characters slowly learn to trust each other and to accept help from their friends. It’s wonderful to watch and sure to be satisfying to readers who have grown attached to the characters. It does, however, remove some of the tension from the narrative. A story about characters making good and healthy decisions and trying to better themselves doesn’t exactly have you on the edge of your seat. (Actually, it did kind of have me on the edge of my seat, but that’s only because I’m unusually obsessed with these characters.)
Unfortunately, the rest of the story doesn’t pick up the slack where the interpersonal relationships fail to create a compelling narrative. The Last Hours, much like the Infernal Devices series before it, is constrained by the fact that it’s a prequel. Readers know that the shadow world still exists in 2007, and even which characters have living descendants in the present day. That doesn’t mean that there can’t be any mystery – we don’t know how things play out, or which characters have something awful happen to them, and there are plenty of characters whose fate we don’t know. It does mean, however, that any storyline that threatens major changes to the world is just not going to hold a lot of weight.
It is strange, then, that the main plot of Chain of Thorns does exactly that, with three utterly unremarkable villains threatening to do things that we all know are not going to happen. Even more baffling is the way the confrontations with those villains play out – borrowing storylines from other Shadowhunter books so blatantly that nothing about the ending feels memorable at all.
If you were poring over other Shadowhunter books looking for hints as to what was going to happen in Chain of Thorns – or making wild guesses about what consequences would befall your favourite characters after the decisions they made in Chain of Iron – rest assured that you have very little to worry about. Author Cassandra Clare has said in several interviews that she changed the ending of Chain of Thorns to be less devastating while she was writing it during COVID-19 lockdowns. It really shows. I was left more confused than anything, wondering why so many potentially interesting storylines had amounted to almost nothing, and what all those teasers in The Dark Artifices and Ghosts of the Shadow Market were supposed to be about.
Maybe it’s a sign I spent a little bit too much time theorizing during lockdowns. I don’t know.
A charitable review of the conclusion to The Last Hours would say that it does right by readers who grew attached to the characters in the first two books. Everyone’s storyline is neatly wrapped up. Characters undergo significant growth, dealing with their own issues and finally learning to open up to other people. It is, for the most part, a pleasant 778 pages of hanging out with great characters. Years from now, I’ll probably look back on it as a comfort book, something that was truly written for diehard fans of the series.
An uncharitable review would say that Chain of Thorns is about 600 pages of filler and 178 pages of a plot that is neither engaging nor particularly original. So little happens that the one really devastating plot twist ends up feeling pointless and cruel after all is said and done. Major events from book 2 that could have led to incredibly interesting storylines end up having comically few consequences on the plot of the final book. Instead, the main conflict is a bizarre mishmash of storylines from other Shadowhunter books that frankly give the impression that Cassandra Clare has finally run out of ideas.
I guess I land somewhere in the middle.
I thought that at the end of this book I would be glad that the author had changed course and opted for a happier ending than what she had initially planned. Maybe I will feel that way the next time I re-read the series. But for the moment, I’m left wondering what Clare had been setting up for these characters while she was writing The Dark Artifices and Ghosts of the Shadow Market, and kind of wishing I could read that story instead.