67 pages 2 hours read

Cassandra Clare

Chain of Gold

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2020

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Summary and Study Guide


Set in London in 1903, Chain of Gold (2020) by Cassandra Clare is a period young-adult fantasy novel. It is the first in The Last Hours trilogy (part of Clare’s sprawling multi-series Shadowhunters universe), which follows the adventures of young heroes James and Lucie Herondale and Cordelia Carstairs. Combining modern storytelling with a historically accurate milieu, the novel is notable for its diverse cast, strong heroines, trenchant commentary on real-world issues, and exploration of perennial themes such as love, loyalty, and free will.

In the Shadowhunter universe, supernatural beings coexist with regular humans, known as “mundanes.” The supernatural beings live in the unseen world and include creatures drawn from various mythologies. Chief among these beings are Nephilim, or Shadowhunters, a group of humans with angelic blood. The Shadowhunters’ mandate is to protect the unseen world and mundanes from demons, who are destructive inter-dimensional beings. Shadowhunters also prevent Downworlders—earth’s other supernatural beings consisting of warlocks, faeries, werewolves, and vampires—from attacking the mundanes.

Drawing heavily on her itinerant childhood and love for reading, the author always represents diverse cultures and sexual orientations in her texts, and she includes rich historical and literary references. All the chapter titles in Chain of Gold are taken from poetry of the Victorian and Edwardian era, and the book title alludes to Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860-61). The plot itself carries some resemblance to that of Great Expectations, echoing the story of a young man hopelessly in love with a beautiful, cold young woman confined by her evil-tempered guardian. This study guide follows the 2020 Walker Books, London edition.

Plot Summary

Told in the third-person omniscient narration, the story begins with a flashback to 1897: Ten-year-old Lucie falls into a pit in the forest near her family home in Idris, the secret country of the Shadowhunters. Lucie is rescued by an unknown boy she next meets only six years later.

In the present day—1903—Lucie’s older brother, James, and his friends—Matthew Fairchild and Christopher and Thomas Lightwood—defeat a demon in a London alley. Hunting demons is par for course for Shadowhunters, but this event is different for two reasons: One, this is the first demon attack in London for over a year; and two, the demon seems to recognize James. James is troubled also because lately he has inadvertently been slipping into the underworld. The demon blood James has inherited from his mother, Tessa—a warlock, child of a demon and a human—gives James a special gift. He can turn into a shadow, sometimes entering shadow realms and underworlds, which are different dimensions of reality.

As the action rises, Cordelia Carstairs, Lucie and James’s childhood friend, arrives in London. Cordelia is deeply in love with the brooding, handsome James. However, James is sworn to another girl: his childhood love, Grace Blackthorn, ward of her tyrannical adoptive mother, Tatiana Blackthorn. Tatiana has not allowed Grace to train as a Shadowhunter and harbors an irrational hatred for most Shadowhunter families. As Grace, too, makes her debut in London Shadowhunter society, James is torn between his friendship with Cordelia and his compulsive love for Grace.

Grace and Tatiana are not the only Blackthorns to arrive in London; Lucie discovers that they are accompanied by the boy who saved her in the forest years ago. Unseen to everyone but Lucie and his mother and sister, the boy is the ghost of Jesse Blackthorn, Tatiana’s long-dead son whom she keeps alive through black magic. Indebted to Jesse for saving her, Lucie agrees not to reveal his existence to anyone (Tatiana’s black magic is forbidden by Shadowhunter society). The young people hope to have a peaceful, fun-filled summer together, but their plans are derailed by escalating demon attacks. The demons now attack in packs, have an unusual tolerance for sunlight, and leave several Shadowhunters infected with untreatable demon poison. On a few occasions, the demons single out James, telling him to come with them and heed the call of his demon grandfather’s blood.

Among the injured is Barbara Lightwood, Thomas‘s sister. After Barbara and her fiancé die from the demon poison, the young Shadowhunters take it upon themselves to stop the demon attacks. James’s research shows his maternal grandfather is a fallen angel, one of the strongest demons in existence. James becomes preoccupied with the notion that he is doomed by his demon blood. Lucie, who also inherits unusual powers from her demon blood, discovers she can command the dead.

Grace Blackthorn asks James to elope with her and leave Shadowhunter society so she can escape her mother’s clutches. After James refuses, Grace removes her bracelet—a symbol of their love—from James’s wrist, breaking off their relationship. The bracelet’s removal affects James oddly, eventually making him feel happier and attuned once again to his organic attraction towards Cordelia. This suggests the bracelet was an enchantment that made James believe he was in love with Grace. On a recon mission to a Downworlder salon, James and Cordelia exchange a heated kiss.

As the narrative races to its climax, Christopher Lightwood discovers an antidote for the demon poison, requiring the forbidden Malos root. James recalls seeing the plant on a previous visit to Chiswick Manor, Tatiana’s family home in London. However, before the root can be retrieved, Christopher is injured in a demon attack and taken to the Silent City, home of the Silent Brothers, the monk-like healers of Shadowhunter society. Lucie and Thomas head over to Chiswick Manor to get the root, while James, Matthew, and Cordelia go to the Silent City after receiving a summoning message from James’s uncle, a Silent Brother.

At the Silent City, the trio discover the message was forged as a ruse; the injured are demonically possessed and start chanting James’s name. The injured Christopher, possessed, claws at James, infecting him with the demon poison. James realizes the demon attacks have been orchestrated by his grandfather to summon him and that these attacks will not stop until James confronts him. James enters the realm of his grandfather through an archway and discovers his grandfather is Belial, Prince of Hell. Belial wants to possess James’s body so he can roam the earth; only his own flesh and blood can withstand Belial’s essence without burning. When James refuses, Belial directs a Mandikhor demon to batter James. In the book’s climactic battle, James slays the Mandikhor, and Cordelia breaks through the archway with her sword Cortana—which can cut through any material—and rushes in to stab Belial. At Chiswick Manor, Thomas finds the root and rushes off to prepare the antidote. Sensing her brother is in danger, Lucie and Jesse head to Silent City, where they find James succumbing to his injuries from the demon poison. Jesse saves James’s life by giving him his last breath held in a gold locket. James revives, and Jesse fades away.

The threat of Belial neutralized for the time being, the narrative enters the falling-action section. The injured Shadowhunters are revived with the antidote. However, Grace meets James and slips her bracelet on his wrist again, renewing her love spell; on Grace’s request, James destroys an automaton at Blackthorn Manor, accidentally setting the ancient house on fire. Tatiana accuses James of arson, but Cordelia saves him by lying to the authorities that James couldn’t have set the fire as he spent the night with her. To save Cordelia’s reputation, James and she agree to enter a marriage of convenience for a year.

In the plot’s resolution, James and Cordelia emerge partially happy with their arrangement, Lucie resolves to resurrect Jesse, and Tatiana is convicted of dark magic and exiled. However, the Epilogue shows Tatiana and Belial are allies, and Tatiana’s exile to the Adamant Citadel is part of Belial’s plan, thus setting the stage for Chain of Iron, the sequel to Chain of Gold. The narrative establishes Cordelia as the feisty heroine, inverting the trope of the damsel in distress. Lucie’s considerable powers are established, and James finds his identity in his actions rather than his heritage. The novel’s overarching themes are the importance of loyalty, the meaning of true love, and the danger of presumptuousness.