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 that 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 for books is flooded with paranormal activity - witches amongst them. But in 1992 when L J Smith first wrote The Secret Circle trilogy it was something fresh and new - and should be reviewed with that in mind. L J Smith was producing well-written compulsive novels about teenagers in love LONG before Edward Cullen was even a glint in Meyer's eye.
The Initiation 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 should not be lovingly expanded.
For me, 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 of the trilogy. 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, 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 was. There is also evidence that she has massive potential for growth and character development in future novels, which I am looking forward to exploring. 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 from not gaining much 'screen time', but I feel sure this will be remedied.
I also love the innocence of the romance - this is definitely YA from early 90s in content. Kissing is as far as these teens are prepared to go, and I for one love this. Too often in YA books I read that have been published more recently there is 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 this novel is 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.
In conclusion, 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. L J Smith has a fine ability to write characters you will end up caring deeply about, and her prose is magnificent. Highly recommended.