Monday, 12 September 2011

Review: The Secret Circle by L. J. Smith

First published in: 1992 
This edition published in: 2009
By: Hodder Children's Books

Cassie Blake is not happy about moving from sunny California to gloomy New England. She longs for her old life, her old friends… But when she starts to form a bond with a clique of terrifying but seductive teenagers at her new school she thinks maybe she could fit in after all.

Cassie is part of the most alluring and deadly clique imaginable, she is starting to realise that power comes with a price – more dangerous than she knows. Torn between the dueling desires of the two leaders of the Secret Circle, Cassie is struggling again. Does she use her considerable supernatural power to save lives, or does she put all her energy into keeping Adam, the boys she loves.

My review:

20 years-old now, L. J. Smith's books are incredibly dated in character types, attitudes and writing (oh God, especially the writing), but they usually contain a kernel of a good plot/idea in them. In The Vampire Diaries, it was the story of 2 vampire brothers who feud with each other for centuries and in The Secret Circle, it's the idea of a group of teenagers wielding immense magical power.

The Initiation starts with our protagonist, Cassie, meeting a teenage boy on the beach and helping him hide from a pack of bullies with guns. (Bullies are very extreme in this book.) Cassie and the stranger stare into each other's eyes and have a deep connection and it's as cheesy as it sounds. However, Cassie and her handsome stranger part before she even learns his name and then she comes home to the news that she and her mother are moving to live with her grandmother, in a town called New Salem.

In New Salem, Cassie encounters a group of teenagers, who seem to stand apart from everyone else and are feared by the rest of the town, even the adults. There's beautiful and perfect Diana, beautiful and dangerous Faye, beautiful and tough Deborah - you get the idea. Just about everybody in the Circle is unfathomably gorgeous and the reader has to be constantly reminded of this. Written in the same era as the Sweet Valley High series, the writing of The Secret Circle is on par with it: The way SVH repetitively mentioned the Wakefield twins' "sun-streaked blonde hair and blue-green eyes, the colour of the Pacific Ocean", so Smith makes umpteen references to Diana's "hair like sunlight and moonlight woven together" and Faye's "hooded amber eyes".

(Speaking of Diana and Faye, the way blonde, fair Diana is the good witch and black-haired Faye is the bad one is eye-roll worthy, and while I wish it was an example of the book being dated, that kind of lazy stereotyping is still going on. See: the new Wizard of Oz movie, where Glinda the Good Witch is played by blonde Michelle Williams and the Wicked Witch of the West is played by brunette Rachel Weisz.)

The Initation is pretty slow going; it takes Cassie the entire novel to figure out what the reader already knows (it's on the blurb, for Christ's sake!): That the teens are a coven of witches and the boy she met on the beach is one of them (and is Diana's boyfriend, natch. You didn't think there wouldn't be a love triangle, did you?). But when they do a spell, it's pretty cool, as is the idea of teenagers with that much power, so I read on.

The Captive is paced at about triple the speed of the first book. It all happens in this one: The coven accidentally release a dark energy; there are 3 murders; Cassie is blackmailed by Faye and turns to the dark side, participating in one of the freakiest things I've ever read about (the 'bad' witches bewitch and then borderline date-rape pizza delivery boys. Really, WTF?); the coven work out who is behind the killings; Faye and Diana fight for leadership; Cassie's family is attacked and Cassie learns the story of the teens' parents and the evil witch Black John, and how the coven came to be born with their powers. I have to admit, the backstory is great and totally spooky. While Smith acknowledges in the text its resemblance to A Nightmare on Elm Street, it also reminded me of Village of the Damned.

So at this point, I was totally getting what was good about this series. Unfortunately, The Power starts badly with this ridiculous love-fest for Cassie, which annoyed me to no end and put her firmly into Mary Sue territory (seriously, everybody declares how wonderful she is, even after they find out she's lied and betrayed them, and one character begs for 3 pages to be allowed to date her). Plot-wise, Black John comes back to town, although he was scarier when he remained a bogeyman. He's not used very well in the story - the gang only interact with him once before the final showdown. I think this is where the restricted narration is a hindrance, as everything is told from Cassie's POV. Faye joins forces with Black John and it would have been interesting to see their relationship. I imagine the two of them as being like Faith and the Major from Buffy, but we'll never know.

I did like the final battle and the ending in general, though. I'd guessed the big revelations already - the connection between Cassie and Black John and who the real traitor in the coven was - but I didn't guess at the way all the little details fitted together and it was pretty neat to see things that seemed inconsequential earlier in the trilogy become important. Smith did a similar thing in The Vampire Diaries: The Fury, when it was revealed how much that had happened was Katherine's doing.

So as I suspected, there is an entertaining yarn buried underneath the cliches and the bad-romance-novel writing. It's interesting to me, to go back and read teen books of yesteryear and see what was genuinely good and what was at best, a guilty pleasure. L. J. Smith's books definitely fall into the latter category.

Rating: 3 stars


  1. What a great idea TG! I hadn't thought of going back and reading YA books from a different time. Although books like Flowers in the Attic scare me a little! The plot of the first books read a lot like that movie The Craft! Although I suppose a lot of books about witchcraft tend to start the same way.

  2. It's something I've been wanting to do for a while actually; maybe even make a regular feature of it. The only difficulty is deciding which books would apply, as in the past YA wasn't a well-defined genre (some would say it still isn't, what with some books being released as YA in one country and Adult in another). But I would like to read YA books from the past that I missed.

  3. A friend actually mentioned these books to me recently, though I've never thought about picking them up as I didn't enjoy The Vampire Diaries too much. I agree with the writing style feeling very out-dated.

    Good review, I enjoyed reading it. Don't think I'll pick these books up, though!

  4. Wow, didn't realize that the series was so old!


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