Fans of L. J. Smith know what to expect from her before they open the books, and "The Secret Circle" trilogy is no exception. A young woman blossoming into adulthood, a handsome "knightly" love interest (often seeming too good to be true), a darker, more mysterious bad-boy to balance the 'good boy' that the protagonist is equally attracted to, an angelic best friend, and a beautiful, sensual female villain. In terms of storylines, a supernatural mystery will be mingled in with the usual troubles of adolescence, with a hefty dose of the coming of age narrative, a forbidden romance, a series of murders and other little subplots thrown in for good measure.
Yet as repetitive as Smith's books sometimes appear, their popularity and appeal cannot be denied. The author has a good ear for human connections and emotions, and can keep a story rolling along nicely, dropping clues to the mystery as she goes and juggling several threads of narrative without letting any fall to the way side or having any become un-neccessary or boring. And in terms of keeping her regular formula fresh, "The Secret Circle" is probably the trilogy that does so most effectively: managing to pull together many different plots and ideas into a coherent, interesting whole.
Cassie Blake is holidaying with her mother in Cape Cod, putting up with Portia Bainbridge and having a remarkable experience with a young man who she rescues from some local thugs, when her mother breaks her some drastic news: they are not going back home at the end of break, but returning to her mother's hometown New Salem, to live with Cassie's ailing and estranged grandmother. Life in the small town is not to Cassie's advantage: the other students do not simply ignore her, but *avoid* her, nasty surprises are left in her locker, and even the teachers seem to treat her with suspicion. To top it all off, a strange group of teenagers led by the beautiful Faye Chamberlain seem to have it in for our Cassie.
Yet it seems that Cassie is somehow linked to this odd club - they all live on the same road, and she is eventually befriended by the benevolent, lovely Diana Meade, cousin to Faye and leader of the group. From here she soon discovers that there are two opposing factions in town: the ordinary, often hostile 'out-siders', and the Club: a group of young witches who are the descendants of the real witches at Salem.
And of course, it is here that things get really complicated for young Cassie, with the advent of three major catalysts: the return of Diana's beloved boyfriend, who just happens to be the boy Cassie saved at Cape Cod and has fallen in love with; the discovery of a crystal skull that she suspects holds some evil power, and the death of one of the soon-to-be initiated witches, that leaves a place open in the coven for Cassie...
It's hardly strenuous reading, but Smith's myriad of plots and details come together in her most worth-while series of books. Though the main characters are hardly realistic (Faye in particular is a bit over-the-top - see her little performance in English class), they are *interesting*, as are their relationships to each other. Or should I say their *conflicts* with each other, as the struggles between opposing factions of the coven, the coven with the out-siders, the members of the love-triangle, and the entire cast with the malevolent black force are compulsive reading.
It does slip a few times, usually when Smith gets too caught up in her own cleverness, for instance, she seems to be very proud of the phrase "devastatingly witty remark" as she uses it no less than four times! Furthermore, it was painful to read the truly awful poems that Smith describes as "good". No self respecting author would ever blow their own trumpet over lines such as "But you'll die smiling/Then you'll be part of the fire too". And as always, her love scenes are just plain silly - are we really supposed to believe that Cassie is in love with Adam after just one meeting?!
So basically, Smith's books do have an expiry date for older readers - anyone over the age of fifteen will probably find them silly, but if you're gift-searching for book-loving female "tweens", then L. J. Smith is a good choice, and "The Secret Circle: "The Initiation" her most entertaining read - including of course "The Captive" and "The Power".