I’d like to report a case of MacGuffin abuse.
Perpetrator: Cassandra Clare
Locale: Chain of Gold, Book One of The Last Hours
In her most recent addition to the Shadowhunter Chronicles, Chain of Gold, Cassandra Clare rode one literary device to ‘til it died: the MacGuffin.
MacGuffins, named by film great Alfred Hitchcock, are plot devices that propel the story forward. Frequently, it is an object or person the protagonists must track down. There’s nothing wrong with having these combined with seemingly insurmountable obstacles drive a plot. When the protagonist overcomes them at the end, it’s enjoyable for everyone. But having a plot that simply consists of a series of easily achievable MacGuffins is not only unenjoyable for readers, its sloppy writing.
For 582 pages, readers follow Cordelia Carstairs, James and Lucie Herondale, and an assortment of their friends, family, and acquaintances through a series of dangerous, romantic encounters with demons, ghosts, and Edwardian fashion challenges. As is typical of coming-of-age stories, the characters grapple with who they really are and how to continue being themselves as they enter romantic relationships. Over this lengthy story, Clare works to keep it moving ever forward.
There are a lot of things Cassandra Clare does well—that’s why I’m a fan and have read most of her work. She’s a propulsive writer, and she keeps up the demanding pace of story telling over 700 page novels regularly by employing things like MacGuffins. But there was something about the use of the plot device in Chain of Gold that was too overt. When readers begin to be aware of the structure of that plot, it interrupts the immersive nature of story-telling and reading.
The story starts off well enough, with two events planned that logically bring characters from different worlds together. But soon after it devolves into a sequence of secretive missions characters must undertake. Get a demon-trapping box. Get a secret ingredient for an antidote. Over and over, characters sneak into buildings and events they shouldn’t be at and meet with people they shouldn’t see. At nearly 600 pages, this becomes repetitive and lacking in surprise. With the characters hitting few dead ends and almost assured of victory, the propulsive quality wavers. Perhaps tighter editing would have scrapped one or two or these missions and made for a shorter story with higher stakes throughout.
But aside from these petty structural complaints, Chain of Gold delivers, tapping into the atmosphere of the Infernal Devices and the camaraderie of The Mortal Instruments. At this point, it’s no doubt that Clare’s work will be home runs among fantasy and YA fans, and the upcoming Chain of Iron and Chain of Thorns no doubt will be the same. For fans of Clare’s, this is a must read, diving back into the historical period of the broader series and getting to know new Carstairs, Lightwoods, and Herodales as they fight their own demons—internal and otherworldly.