In my Hunger Games review, I mentioned that I, personally, do not hate love triangles if/when they are done correctly. The list of works that achieve this seemingly simple criteria may be slim, but it does exist, and there is one book series in particular that proves it beyond a shadow of a doubt.
The Infernal Devices trilogy by Cassandra Clare.
A prequel trilogy to Clare’s acclaimed Mortal Instruments series, The Infernal Devices takes place in 1878 Victorian London, at a time when the demon-hunting Shadowhunters were forced to go up against a new kind of foe: a clockwork army. Tessa Gray, a girl with unique powers she has only just begun to discover, is captured by Axel Mortmain, the human leader of the clockwork army who would use her and her powers to destroy Shadowhunters once and for all to avenge the deaths of his lawbreaking, warlock parents. She is rescued by the handsome yet haunted Shadowhunter Will Herondale and brought into his world, where she meets Will’s steadfast but dying parabatai Jem Carstairs, the maternal leader Charlotte Branwell, her inventive husband Henry Branwell, haughty Jessamine Lovelace, and immortal, bisexual warlock Magnus Bane.
In Clockwork Angel, the first book, Tessa is initially drawn to Will, but he pushes her away with cruel words, as he has done to anyone and everyone else who has tried to get close to him up to that point. The reader learns, however, that Will does this in the belief that when he was a young boy, he was cursed by a demon so that those he loved would die. The only one he allows himself to get close to at all is Jem, as Jem is dying anyway and offers Will perfect friendship through their parabatai bond without needing or demanding perfect understanding of why Will acts the way he does.
This novel is probably the weakest of the trilogy, but only because it suffers by comparison to the proceeding two exceptional works. I believe that those who are already fans of the Mortal Instruments will enjoy and get the most out of Clockwork Angel, if only for Magnus’ flirtatious line towards Will: “Black hair and blue eyes are my favorite combination.” Unbeknownst to Magnus, he will have a future relationship with a different Shadowhunter named Alec who possesses these same attributes in the Mortal Instruments.
By the first few chapters of Clockwork Prince, the second book in the trilogy, the love triangle has been established and developed between Will, Tessa, and Jem. After Will spurns her, Tessa found herself getting closer to Jem, who is kind, gentle, and patient with her. They tour the city of London together and have their first kiss on Blackfriars Bridge, which they come to consider their special spot. By the end of Clockwork Prince, knowing that they are running out of time together in the face of Jem’s illness, they become engaged, neither knowing of Will’s curse or of his ever growing love for Tessa. It is not until after Will learns that he was, in fact, never cursed that he feels free to share the source of his callousness for the last five years with those who care for him. His newfound knowledge may change him into someone who is finally open to love someone other than Jem, but by then it is too late. Tessa may love them both, but she has pledged her heart and hand to Jem.
It is by the end of Clockwork Prince that the reader knows which of the two boys they are rooting for Tessa to be with in the end. I, personally, found myself on Will’s side. Will embodies many of the characteristics that I, and many others, enjoy in a love interest. Will’s snark, inner strength, and ultimate loyalty to those he loves makes it impossible for the reader to ignore him, while these in addition to his passionate love and appreciation for books and poetry makes it impossible for Tessa to ignore him. Meanwhile, however, one of the strengths of this series is that neither of the two boys are overtly superior to the other in terms of character. Both of them love Tessa and treat her right (believably fatal curses notwithstanding.) It is impossible to dislike Jem even if you prefer Will-even the evil, picky cat loves him- but what I think stands in the way of many readers’ preference for Jem is his lack of a story in which he is his own active protagonist, outside of his romance with Tessa. This changes in Clockwork Princess, but as previously stated most readers’ minds by then have been made up.
Clockwork Princess, the third and final book in the trilogy, is truly one of the most heart-wrenching, emotionally complex and sophisticated novels I have ever read. When one is an experienced consumer of stories, an apt observer of the art of storytelling, they begin to pick up on certain patterns, tropes, endgames. They thus come to believe that those patterns, tropes, and endgames are the only way to tell a successful story, that without them a narrative cannot be well written. Cassandra Clare herself realizes this and challenges that belief. Tessa’s love for Jem is not inferior to her love for Will or vice versa, because she cannot love one without loving the other. Neither boy would want her to, for their parabatai bond means that they are of one soul. It is a special relationship that has no equal in the real world for us to compare it to. The nature of the parabatai bond is best explained in the following passage:
“And it came to pass…that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul…Then Jonathan and David made a covenant, because he loved him as his own soul. They were two warriors, and their souls were knit together by Heaven, and out of that Jonathan Shadowhunter took the idea of parabatai, and encoded the ceremony into the Law” (Clockwork Princess, p. 325).
After Jem becomes a Silent Brother, part of an immortal order whose members are unable to wed, so that he may be strong enough to save Will and Tessa from Mortmain’s clockwork army, he is not resentful of them for getting married and being happy together. In the epilogue, when Jem and Tessa romantically reunite on Blackfriar’s Bridge after Will has been dead for 80 years and Jem is no longer a Silent Brother, it is strongly implied that Will is with them. There is no bitterness between the three of them. No competition or jealousy. Just mutual respect, adoration, and love.
That is how you write an effective love triangle.
Best characters/ship: Will Herondale/Tessa Gray
*I’d give it 6/5 if I could!