This week another book that features angels and demons and their half-human descendants. When it’s cold, gloomy and wet (as it is in England now) I feel like curling up with an old-fashioned romance. Cassandra Clare’s `Clockwork Angel’ is just that. This novel came out in 2010 and is the first volume of `The Infernal Devices’ trilogy, which is widely available in paperback, ebook or audiobook forms. Clare is best known for her Young Adult series `The Mortal Instruments’ in which Shadowhunters battle demons in modern New York. A film of the first book in this series, `City of Bones’, is due out soon. `The Infernal Devices’ is a prequel to `The Mortal Instruments’. It is mainly set in Victorian London, but a London whose inhabitants include demon-slaying Nephilim and the vampires, werewolves, goblins and half-human warlocks collectively known as Downworlders.

As the story starts, sixteen year old Tessa Gray arrives in England from New York. Quiet bookish Tessa is an orphan with little in the world except for a clockwork angel necklace which once belonged to her mother. Tessa has come to join her brother Nate, who seems to be making his fortune in London,  but she is kidnapped by the sinister Dark sisters. With torture and threats to kill Nate, the sisters force Tessa to use a power she didn’t know she had, the power to change shape. They tell Tessa that they are preparing her to be the bride of `The Magister’ .  She is desperate to escape and she’s helped to do so by a dashing young man called Will Herondale who takes Tessa to the Shadowhunters’ London Institute. The Shadowhunters are clans of demon-hunters who are descended from angels and have angel-given magic embodied in the runes marked on their bodies.  As Nephilim, the Shadowhunters tend to look down on the ignorant humans they protect and they have an increasingly uneasy Accord with the Downworlders.

The fortress-like London Institute is presided over by Charlotte Branwell and her absent-minded inventor husband. There Tessa also meets reluctant Shadowhunter Jessamine and Will’s devoted friend and demon-fighting partner Jem. Charlotte has never encountered a shape-shifter before. Tessa insists that her parents were human yet her power marks her as half-demon. She’s still given sanctuary and begins to search for her missing brother but terrifying automatons are stalking the streets of London. In order to discover the identity of the mysterious Magister, Tessa has to use her shape-shifting ability to infiltrate the dangerous world of the London vampires and discover the secrets of the Pandemonium Club. As Tessa struggles to cope with startling revelations and cruel betrayals she finds herself increasingly drawn to both reckless Will and gentle Jem.

Readers familiar with `The Mortal Instruments’ will enjoy finding out more about long-lived bisexual warlock, Magnus Bane, and meeting the ancestors of some of their favourite characters. However, no knowledge of the other series is necessary to appreciate `Clockwork Angel’.  I prefer this Victorian series to Clare’s contemporary novels. This could be because I’m a bit of a Victorian myself but I think it’s also because Clare’s love of 19th century poetry and fiction comes across so strongly in this series. Like characters in Jane Austen, Tessa and Will bond through a shared love of particular writers, and every chapter starts with an apt literary quotation. As if that wasn’t enough, naming one of your characters after two Bronte siblings is a bit of a clue. When American authors write period novels set in Britain (or vice versa) they can be full of false notes. Not in this case. This may not be London as it really was in the 19th century but it is the irresistible London of Gothic and Romantic fiction and Clare writes about it with panache.

There are a few evil characters in this book but in general the moral landscape of the series is pleasingly ambiguous. Some Downworlders are shown as acting decently within their own codes of behaviour while the Nephilim can be arrogant and selfish. Centuries of dedicating their lives to the destruction of demons have given the Shadowhunters an enormous sense of entitlement and a dangerous conviction that they are always right. Separated from their natural families, the Shadowhunters in the London Institute (and their equally well characterized servants) form a close but disfunctional family. Amidst all the bickering and misunderstandings, Tessa has to discover who and what she is and whether she has a place in this family.

I suspect that fellow book-lovers will find lonely Tessa a very easy heroine to identify with. The plain girl who wins the hero through sheer force of personality is as popular a piece of wish-fulfillment today as it was when Charlotte Bronte first wrote `Jane Eyre’. Tessa manages to attract not one handsome hero but two. Of course there are well-placed obstacles on the path to happiness. For reasons which don’t become clear until Volume Two, Will pushes away anyone he starts to get too fond of, while Jem is slowly dying of an incurable disease. Does it matter that blue-eyed Will is impossibly beautiful and impossibly Byronic, or that Jem seems almost too sweet and selfless to be true? Not a bit. In a Fantasy Romance I don’t want to read about normal everyday men. Will and Jem are the Bad and Good boys of girlish dreams and, as long as you don’t take this type of fiction too seriously, none the worse for that. Moreover,  if you stick with this series you will eventually come to an unusual and highly satisfying solution to the eternal triangle. Until next week….