The Initiation: Classic YA paranormal romance

Reposting to include Kelly’s new review.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsYA fantasy book reviews L.J. Smith The Secret Circle 1. The InitiationThe Initiation by L.J. Smith

Cassie Blake is distraught when her mother decides to uproot to the small town of New Salem in order to take care of a grandmother who Cassie had never even met before. But that is only the start of her problems. Starting a new school, trying to make new friends — and discovering that some of the people she would most like to befriend are all part of some secret Club that Cassie is not permitted to join. Then a girl dies and Cassie is finally initiated into the Secret Circle, learning that magic is more than just a folktale.

These days the YA market is flooded with paranormal activity — witches amongst them. But in 1992 when LJ Smith first wrote The Secret Circle trilogy it was something fresh and new — and should be reviewed with that in mind. LJ Smith was producing well-written compulsive novels about teenagers in love LONG before Edward Cullen was even a glint in Stephenie Meyer‘s eye.

The opening book of The Secret Circle reads at a breakneck speed. Smith does not linger on too many opening details, just sets the scene so that Cassie is placed in New Salem ready for the main action to begin. This, as far as I am concerned, is a positive because Cassie’s life prior to her move is not of interest and therefore need not be lovingly expanded.

The biggest strength of Smith’s writing is the characters. Here she handles a main cast of twelve with some peripheral characters who will play a further role in the subsequent two novels. To sufficiently flesh them out and give them strong characteristics that ensure you want to read more about them in such a slight novel (my edition is only 287 pages) takes real skill. And her physical descriptions are just wonderful:

It occurred to her, quite incidentally, that these were probably the three most beautiful girls she’d ever seen. It wasn’t just that each had perfect skin, free of the slightest trace of teenage blemishes. It wasn’t their gorgeous hair: Deborah’s dark disordered curls, Faye’s pitch-black mane, and Suzan’s cloud of reddish gold. It wasn’t even the way they set each other off, each one’s distinctive type enhancing the others’ instead of detracting from them. It was something else… A kind of confidence and self-possession… An inner strength, an energy…

Cassie is a very strong main character — by her own admission, she is shy and not very outgoing. However, these traits never become the absolute focus of Cassie — rather, they are just a part of who she is. She has massive potential for growth and character development which I am looking forward to exploring in future novels. In fact, most of the characters feel very real — they have foibles, and both good and bad qualities. The Henderson brothers and Sean suffer a little in The Initiation from not gaining much ‘screen time,’ but this will be remedied later.

I also love the innocence of the romance — this is definitely early 90s YA. Kissing is as far as these teens are prepared to go, and I for one love this. In more recently published YA there is often far too much focus on young girls going further than they perhaps should, and The Initiation harks back to a more chaste time.

The only real problem with The Initiation is that it is very much the opening book in a trilogy, so we are really only getting to know the characters and touching on the main gist of the plot, which will be fleshed out in The Captive.

Anyone who has come to the YA paranormal romance genre recently should definitely check out this opening novel in a classic trilogy. I adore all three books beyond reason and very nostalgically. LJ Smith has a fine ability to write characters you will end up caring deeply about, and her prose is magnificent. Highly recommended.

~Amanda Rutter


YA fantasy book reviews L.J. Smith The Secret Circle 1. The InitiationIt’s the summer before Cassie’s junior year in high school, and her mother abruptly decides to move to New Salem, Massachusetts, to care for Cassie’s grandmother. At first, Cassie hates her grandmother’s forbidding old house, not to mention her new school, where a clique of mean girls torment her.

Things start looking up, though, when beautiful, popular Diana takes Cassie under her wing. Cassie is unable to get into Diana’s inner circle, though — until another girl dies, leaving a vacancy, and suddenly Cassie is initiated into what turns out to be a coven of witches. They have to have twelve members, it turns out, to fully access their power.

Some of the witches use their magic to help and heal people. Others, though, use their power to bully and manipulate. It seems that they really only socialize together because that’s the only way they can have a group of twelve, and each side figures it can sway the other in the end.

The plot unfolds at a rapid pace, as do emotional developments (Cassie falls in love with a boy based on one brief meeting, and puts her absolute trust in Diana almost as quickly). This is both a strength and a weakness. The book flies by; it’s only 287 pages (YA novels weren’t doorstoppers in those pre-HARRY POTTER days) but feels even shorter. For an adult reader, though, much of the emotional stuff lacks depth. One exception is L.J. Smith’s depiction of the way Cassie is ostracized early in the novel, which rings all too true.

As Amanda mentioned, The Initiation was more original in its own time than it feels now. (The Craft wasn’t even out yet.) To fully enjoy it, it’s best to put your mind back into that early-nineties space and compare it to other books from that era, both in plot and in writing style. It’s a quick, entertaining read.

The Initiation ends on a cliffhanger and is followed by two sequels, The Captive and The Power.

~Kelly Lasiter

Published in 1992. Cassie is initiated into the coveted Secret Circle, a coven of young witches whose power has ruled New Salem for three hundred years, but when Cassie realizes her love for the leader’s boyfriend, she risks falling prey to the dark powers that surround her.

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AMANDA RUTTER, one of our guest reviewers, used to be an accountant in the UK but she escaped the world of numbers and is now living in a fantasy world she creates. She runs Angry Robot's YA imprint, Strange Chemistry. And we knew her when....

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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