Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Microreview [book]: The Heart of the Circle by Keren Landsman, translated by Daniella Zamir

Emotionally driven queer romance set against a backdrop of magically-driven political unrest in alternate Tel Aviv

Cover design by Francesca Corsini
The Heart of the Circle, by Keren Landsman, was originally published in Hebrew last year, but this month it's coming out in an English translation from Angry Robot. Finding english-language urban fantasy that takes place outside of American or British locales is pretty unusual, and with its promise of an unusual social role for magic coupled with the Tel Aviv setting, this was a book I was intrigued to pick up.

The main character, Reed is an empath, also known as a "moody": a type of sorcerer living in a world where magic powers are regularly manifested but treated with different levels of discrimination. Living in Tel Aviv, in a society that's apparently known for being more tolerant of sorcerers while still forcing segregation and exclusion on most aspects of their lives, he's torn between the increasing political unrest affecting the city, and wanting to live his life along with his (mostly sorcerous) friends and ("normie") family. Tension in the city is ramping up as sorcerers become the target of murders by the Sons of Simeon, an extremist group, and Reed becomes increasingly embroiled in their plot. Complicating the whole thing are the presence of "damuses" - seers - on both sides, with the Sons of Simeon attempting to manipulate the streams of his future and force him into sacrificing himself and the movement for the sake of his friends. Living with all this, and trying to care for his damus best friend Daphne, would be hard enough if Reed's ex hadn't shown up with an attractive single "moody" ex of his own in tow, who comes with his own extensive baggage about the treatment of sorcerers in this world's equivalent of the USA, and misgivings about starting a relationship with a doomed man.

It's that romance between Reed and Lee which forms front and centre of the plot of The Heart of the Circle, and if the fact that its a doomed relationship between two empaths didn't clue you in, let me explicitly note that there are quite a lot of feelings involved from start to finish. There's the trauma of long-term oppression and their short term situation; complex webs of guilt around their respective powers and, in Lee's case, socialisation around not sharing emotions in general; pre-emptive grief over the Reed's impending doom and the predictions about what it will do to Lee's own life; and obviously all the giddy romantic stuff you could ever possibly want. Because Reed and Lee can feel each other's feelings - and Reed can directly manipulate emotions in others, although this comes with its own taboos - everything gets amplified and dissected and the emotional impact of their situation is generally at the very core of everyone's response. It makes for difficult, slow reading at points, particularly towards the end, but it also feels like an interesting take on its subject matter, placing the character's emotional arcs front and centre while still maintaining the fantasy aspects as a core part of the experience.

Because its told through a narrator who is completely wrapped up his own feelings and direct situation, worldbuilding is delivered in a way that's often painfully subtle. Offhand remarks, meaningless to the characters, clue us in to the existence of a "Confederacy" in North America, or the craters across the entirety of Europe, or the fact that sorcerer's can't vote in Israel despite its reputation as a "safe" city for them - which show how commonplace they are to him, while coming as a complete surprise and shakeup to a reader in our world. The general effect is of a world that's even more wartorn, unstable and unequal than our own, but it's deliberately left in the background, brought up by a character who doesn't find these elements particularly remarkable. The lack of focus on areas of worldbuilding which are commonplace to Reed but novel to the audience also stretches to the magic of this world, which is split into elemental sorcerers (not super explored but in control of air, water, fire and earth respectively) and psychic empaths and seers. Psychics in particular seem to have a lot of weapons at their disposal for altering reality and there's some fairly complex scenes where powers end up weaponised either for practice or in a real life-and-death scenario. Although Reed and Lee's different backgrounds allow for some time exploring different talents and introducing some of the verbal and gestural slang used by the sorcerer community, the mechanics of a lot of what they do is left deliberately vague. Of cousre, there's a sense that this is true for the characters as well as the audience: the use and development of magic powers has been greatly constrained by society's prejudice and fear, so while Reed can hone his abilities to project emotions onto the printed word, there's clearly a great deal of untapped potential which sorcerers are unable to openly share despite the support mechanisms in their communities.

Reed and Lee's romantic relationship is backed up with a nuanced though occasionally uneven group of characters forming that wider community, including said awkward ex Blaze, his new girlfriend River, and a group of younger sorcerers who Reed volunteers as a mentor for, as well as more distant Providing a counterweight to much of the group is Reed's non sorcerous brother Matthew and Sherry, a police officer he's (possibly) in the early stages of dating, and who happens to be a "pebble" or earth sorcerer. Both offer a link to the more "mainstream" - Matthew because of his status as a "normie", Sherry because she has successfully broken in to a more mainstream job despite being a sorcerer - and the book does a reasonable job of showing, almost entirely through sympathetic characters like Matthew and Reed's colleague Daniel, why the prejudice and fear against sorcerers exist in the first place.

Treating magic as a stand-in for other marginalisations is not a politically neutral act, and I suspect The Heart of the Circle is going to raise some eyebrows in translation over its treatment of segregation (introduced in the form of bus seats, which to an English speaking audience is about as real-world-US-South-racism-coded as it gets) in a narrative which otherwise doesn't have anything to say about race. Some sorcerers share talents with their family members, but others, like Reed, have "normies" for relatives and are even more reliant on the "found family" of the sorcerer community. There's no stigma attached to Reed an Lee's same-sex relationship either, meaning that the fantasy angle is carrying the full weight of the oppression storylines here - not to mention the religious discrimination angle which the Sons of Simeon bring to the table. To unpick what this means would go beyond the scope of this review, but it's a narrative choice I feel many readers might want a heads up on beforehand. Of course, as a translated work, The Heart of the Circle was not written with English-speaking readers or context in mind, and that's very much worth noting too.

Ultimately, I don't know that I enjoyed reading The Heart of the Circle. It's a hard story, and fraught romantic feelings tend not to be my personal jam. That said, it's a book that's absolutely stayed with me afterwards in its portrayal of everyday life under oppression and trauma. As a reader, what you take out of The Heart of the Circle is going to very much depend on the extent to which you care about the things Reed cares about - his romantic life, his close friends and family, taking care of himself in an oppressive society that has wrung him out while still being invested and trying to help with the future of the next generation. Despite his absorption in his own life and future, its hard not to sympathise with his position and that of the wider community, and it makes for an intriguing, emotionally-driven fantasy of the kind I'd like to see more of.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 Effortless creation of an alternate, urban fantasy Tel Aviv

Penalties: -1 Feelings on feelings on feelings can get a bit much; -1 Some of the secondary characters deserved more

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

POSTED BY: Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Reference: Landsman, Keren tr. Daniella Zamir. The Heart of the Circle [Angry Robot, 2019]