Fighting the Future, For the Future: The Heart of the Circle by Keren Landsman

Posted 8th August 2019 by Sia in Fantasy Reviews, Queer Lit, Reviews / 0 Comments

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

I closed this book just a few seconds ago as I type this, and my head is pounding about as hard as my heart is.

Heart of the Circle is a book I’ve been looking forward to for a long time – for at least a year. It was originally published in Israel, and was then translated into English for publication in the West, via Angry Robot.

Well, I hope the final version is a bit more polished than the ARC I received – which had multiple typos and formatting errors – but the book itself? Extraordinary.

HotC is set in a world superficially very similar to our own; it’s a 21st century with mobile phones and cars and barristas and bad tv shows. But this world has sorcerers – people who can manipulate one of the classical elements, see the future, or sense and manipulate the emotions of others. What made my worldbuilding!addict self very happy was the multiple references to sorcerers having existed throughout this world’s history; we hear a bit about sorcerers in the Medieval period, and the effects of colonialist sorcery in Africa, and these things and more have contributed to the myths and stigmas modern sorcerers have to deal with. The attitude towards sorcerers is also not universal; Lee, the love interest of the story, has spent most of his life in the Confederacy – what we know as the USA – where the sorcerer community and culture is very different from what it is in Israel, where our story takes place. Landsman didn’t just slap some magic onto a carbon-copy of our world and call it a day; a lot of thought has gone into creating the world of HotC, and I appreciated all of it. More on that in a bit!

Plot-wise, the blurb is pretty accurate, but drastically undersells the impact and complexity of what’s going on here. In HotC’s Israel, sorcerers are segregated on buses and in schools (I don’t think sorcerers go to schools just for them, but there’s a mention of sorcerer students having to sit in the ‘white space’ during exams, same as the white squares they stand in on the buses), undergo micro-aggressions on a regular basis and full-on hate crimes far too often, and (judging from the slogans chanted during some of the demonstrations) can’t even vote. Reed, our main character, is an empath – what’s known as a ‘moodie’ – working in a cafe, attending rallies when he can and working as a youth counsellor for young sorcerers when he’s off the clock. All of his close friends are sorcerers of one kind or another, and all of them are involved in the political movement for sorcerer rights – something that’s becoming more and more dangerous as the hate group Sons of Simeon becomes progressively more violent. People are dying at the rallies and demonstrations, and the police seem indifferent. It’s a pretty terrible time to be a sorcerer.

And then Reed starts falling for Lee, his ex’s ex, kickstarting a chain of events that leads the Sons of Simeon to paint a bull’s-eye on his back.

Social justice is obviously one of the strongest themes of the book, but not only are there no info-dumping monologues where the writer lectures the reader (Landsman is far too good a writer to need info-dumps of any kind), we’re also presented with a surprisingly wide spectrum of opinions and political stances among the cast. In reality, social justice of any kind is messy and complicated, and even people on the same side often don’t agree on the goals of the movement, never mind the means of reaching those goals. The characters of HotC are realistically diverse in their approaches, opinions, and definitions of success, from the we-must-accept-even-those-who-hurt-us Aurora, to Lee, who calls himself a pacifist, but comes from a community where it’s understood and accepted that anyone who comes after a sorcerer is going home in a body-bag. And absolutely all of them are sometimes too tired or angry or depressed to be social justice warriors all the time – they need time off, to have fun or let off steam or just hide under the blankets for a few hours. It made them all feel incredibly real and human: these aren’t Platonic ideals or paragons of virtue – they’re completely normal people, with terrible taste in music, coffee addictions, and rules about when your roommates can bring their boyfriends over.

I’m not usually a fan of first-person narration, but I think it was the right way to go here, especially with Reed’s sorcery – I’m not sure it could have been conveyed as well in third-person. Empaths regularly deal with intense mood-swings as they pick up on the emotions of those around them, and as the tension mounts towards the second half of the book, being inside Reed’s head really helps you feel the terrifying enormity of the situation he’s in. I spent weeks getting through the first third of the book, picking it up and putting it down again – then read the rest in a little under two days. I couldn’t put it down once things picked up; Landsman’s slightly choppy, bare-bones writing (the complete opposite of the kind of purple prose that generally makes me swoon) was perfect for the boulder-crashing-down-a-hill pacing, the sense of things moving faster and faster, and the walls of a trap closing in.

And I can’t talk a whole lot about what was moving fast, or what the trap is, because that’s really something you need to discover for yourself as you read. But I’m practically bouncing with delight at how cool Landsman’s world is, and I just have to talk about it some more. Especially since so much of it is intimately tied to the plot.

For example: I have never seen empathy-as-superpower like this before. I’m actually in the middle of reading The Infinite Noise by Lauren Shippen, in which empathy might be a supersensory power, but it’s not exactly a useful one, and it was extra-interesting to be reading these two books side by side – because in HotC, empaths are unquestionably terrifying and very, very badass. Being able to fling fire around might be more cinematic, but when it comes to sorcerer battles, empaths are the ones who make or break a victory, particularly when they’re paired with seers – known as ‘damuses’ in the modern vernacular – who can not only see all the possible timelines, but decide which one they’re in. At one point, Reed describes a training battle from his time in the IDF (in HotC, as in our world, it’s mandatory for everyone to serve a set period in Israel’s military), in which he and his best friend, Daphne, a seer, took on 50 elementalists – and the elementalists still complained that they were outnumbered. Daphne’s job is to pick the timelines in which bullets (or fireballs) don’t hit her or Reed – leaving Reed free to take out the enemy. Seers safeguard, empaths wipe the floor with their opponents, basically. At least once they’ve had a little training.

Empaths are also able to transfer emotions between people, something I don’t think I’ve seen before, and which intrigues me – if emotions are the result of various chemicals and hormones, how can you transfer depression into a brain that’s not depressed? Being able to trigger someone’s brain into creating depression, sure, I can see that, but…well, it’s magic, even if no one quite calls it that. I’m interested, but I don’t need a scientific breakdown of how it works.

This is all really impressive, but about a third of the way through the book there is An Incident in a night-club where we see just what kind of precision a trained empath is capable of, and it is simultaneously jaw-droppingly incredible and, when you stop to think about it, properly terrifying.

Empaths have a particular role in the sorcerer-justice movement – they walk on the edges of the marches ‘listening’ for anyone who means them harm – and they have a unique place in the creation of media, being able to imbue art (including the written word) with emotions that viewers or readers can then feel for themselves. Reed works as a ‘moodifier’ for a bit during the book, and I really would have loved to see more and know more about it – is this how all art all over the world, and throughout history, works??? Are artists not expected to elicit emotions with their art, but just…have those emotions imbued in it after the fact??? If the imbued emotions wear off eventually, how does that work when you’re moodifying a manuscript – will all the printed copies of the book have the emotions in them? I HAVE SO MANY EXCITED QUESTIONS!


But although Reed’s empathy plays an enormous role – it’s an intrinsic part of who he is, something that’s made extra clear when another character points out how he (and other empaths) are useless at reading body language because they’ve never had to learn it – especially in his relationship with fellow empath Lee (and by the way, the way they use their empathy to melt into each other psychically is both beautifully written and far more intimate than sex), the Big Dramatic Plot is much more…dictated? If dictated is the right word? – by the seers, and how their powers work. The silent, invisible battle between rival damuses – all of whom are trying to manifest conflicting timelines where their side comes out on top – is both intricate and chilling. Questions of inevitability, fate and destiny come up hard against free will and personal choice – none of which have easy answers, all of which have costs attached to them. One of the scariest conflicts revolves around Reed making the future he’s been fighting for by being himself – Daphne and the other seers can only help so much, before their interference alters the decisions he’ll make, and therefore the timeline that will be created. It reminded me of Rachel Aaron’s Heartstriker series, where the main character Julius is also a linchpin of a prophet’s plans…but can’t be told anything about those plans without unmaking them. Although I love the Heartstriker series dearly, it did feel a lot less like a tease here, and much more like an inevitable, intrinsic aspect of being surrounded by seers.

Ultimately I think that’s what makes Heart of the Circle really special – how real it all felt. From the slang and subtle hand-signals sorcerers use amongst themselves, to how believable the character relationships and dynamics were, to all the ways great and subtle Landsman’s world differs from ours, this felt like a book I could step through like a doorway and find a real place waiting on the other side. Even the cinematic, X-Men-worthy showdown at the book’s climax didn’t feel unbelievable – on the contrary, I felt like I should be ducking the fireballs and getting under cover! So it is with great delight that I can say that Heart of the Circle lived up to my hopes for it, and I very much hope everyone snags a copy come publication day.

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