Part fantasy thriller, part social justice allegory, Keren Landsman’s Geffen Award winning novel The Heart of the Circle is a riveting exploration of minority rights told through the lens of a world where sorcerers are not only a part of day-to-day life, but are discriminated against, segregated and even murdered.
Set in what appears to otherwise be modern day Israel, The Heart of the Circle is narrated by Reed, the story’s central protagonist. Reed is a gay “empath/moody”; a type of psychic who can read and manipulate other people’s emotions. While Reed’s identity as a gay man is not explicitly discussed as one of the central themes of the novel, one gets the impression that Landsman’s choice to centre the novel’s main events around a gay love story is not incidental. Rather, it appears that Keren Landsman, as a strong Israeli LGBT2QIA+ ally and activist, sowed this love story seamlessly into her novel in order to invite the reader to notice the similarities between the oppression of the sorcerers in the world she has created and that which is so often experienced by LGBT2QIA+ people in our own.
The novel kicks off after another murder has taken place at one of the protests that Reed and his roommate Daphne have attended. Fighting for equal rights, sorcerers keep getting killed at one rally after another. Despite the risk and the entreaties of Reed’s brother Mathew to stop attending the rallies, Reed and Daphne can’t quell the impulse to fight for their rights. That is, until Daphne who is a “seer/damus”—a type of sorcerer that has some ability to see into and manipulate the future—has a vision of Reed being murdered. While Daphne attempts to use her abilities to save Reed, a chance encounter with an old flame, Blaze, and a potential love interest, Lee, sets off a chain of events that risks locking in Reed’s fate irrevocably. Daphne might be able to pick a future where one set of green lights after another assures they never get stuck in traffic, or where the open back entrance to an amusement park allows them to get in for free, but can she save her newly smitten friend from the one seemingly inevitable future that’s been set in motion?
Karen Landsman’s novel has much to commend it. Landsman’s facility for dialogue and her ability to examine, delve into and convey human emotion are superb. Of course, they would have to be to properly portray Reed’s first-person description of his ability to read other people’s emotions, weaving in and out as he does between the feelings of others and his own. At one point, Reed describes how he uses his abilities to enhance the mood of the patrons at the cafe where he works as a bartender, while at another point he relates it to a common empath occupation, which involves taking away the negative emotions of “normies.” After reading The Heart of the Circle one begins to wonder if one’s local bartender has always been the empath that takes away one’s negative emotions, but can’t always rid themselves of their own? This is rich terrain for a sensitive writer and Landsman utilizes it well.
In reading Keren Landsman’s novel, one senses the intended association between the sorcerers’ plight and that of the LGBT2QIA+ community, but even more broadly that the sorcerers are standing in for anyone that doesn’t fit in with their society’s expectations. The Heart of the Circle skilfully depicts a world where sorcerers, much like the mutants of Marvel Comics, function as an allegory for the treatment of minorities. While Keren Landman’s novel is much more literary in its subject matter than The Xmen, both touch on similar themes. Just as Captain Xavier was meant to symbolize in part the non-violent strategies of Martin Luther King vs. the more militant tactics of Malcolm X symbolized by Magneto, The Heart of the Circle too deals with themes of peaceful coexistence vs. dominance, superiority and the struggle for power.
These themes are chillingly relevant in the context of a novel set in Israel. This becomes all the more clear when one of the sorcerers from the religious extremist group, The Sons of the Simeon, sets a pub on fire along with himself and is described as a suicide bomber, or when reference is made to the assassination of Israel’s former prime minister Yitzak Rabin. In this sense, Landsman’s novel is too complex to be simple allegory. Instead, readers will find themselves in a complex metaphorical landscape shifting in between perspectives, as if the sorcerers were at once Jews in their fear of persecution built up over thousands of years of oppression and at the same time Palestinians in their fear of the oppression of the Israeli state. One minute a member of The Sons of Simeon appears to be like a Palestinian extremist blowing himself up for freedom, the next the Jewish extremist who shot Rabin, killing his own people to do his part in ushering in the end times.
At times, however, I found myself wanting to know more about the world she created. While it is a long-standing cliché that sci-fi and fantasy novelists often put far too much into their world building and not enough into character development and dialogue, I found the reverse to be true in Keren Landsman’s novel. At a couple of points in the novel what is presumably The United States of America was referred to as “The Confederacy” and it was explained that the sorcerers in “The Confederacy” live separately on “reserves.” From the standpoint of allegory this is interesting commentary, but at the various points where the novel intersects with the real world I felt there were unanswered questions. I was confused, for example, as to the larger place of sorcerers within both Israeli and “Confederacy” society. Moreover, how was it that these powerful sorcerers could have found themselves so powerless?
The Heart of the Circle often functions much like magic realism in that what might otherwise be logical gaps in the story are part of a symbolic order, which serves as a way to reflect back to us something about our own world, or our own psychology that we might not otherwise see. Therefore, delineating the contours of the world might actually detract from the indefiniteness necessary to give the story its psychological potency. While this was initially my take on the first half of the novel, the latter half began to feel more like a classic fantasy tale where there are clear good guys and bad guys, instead of the real world complexity and moral ambiguity often associated with the literary tendencies of the magic realism genre. Either way, I found myself wanting more information, either a greater development of the story’s overarching themes in relation to our own world, or for the place the novel inhabited to be a more clearly developed universe of its own.
All of this being said, I feel that The Heart of the Circle is an original and compelling novel that I would recommend to a general audience and fantasy buffs alike. It is likely also of particular interest to those looking for LGBTQ2IA+ characters in genre fiction and more specifically those looking for a gay male love story in a genre in which this type of partnership is perhaps under-represented. Additionally, I think others who would find it of interest are Marvel fans who might appreciate its similarities and differences to The Xmen, as well as those just looking for an exciting fantasy thriller, combined with a feel good love story. Keren Landman’s The Heart of the Circle is truly a unique, but not esoteric piece of oft-times literary genre fiction that is likely to appeal to a wide range of people and interests. With strong literary merits, excellent dialogue, and Landsman’s exceptional ability to describe and communicate human emotion it is well worth the read.
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- Winner of The Geffen Award for Best SFF Novel (2019)
Book Title: The Heart of the Circle
Author: Keren Landsman
Original Language: Hebrew
Translated from Hebrew by Daniela Zamir
Published 2019, Angry Robot
Reviewer: Daniel Kirzner-Priest