The Heart of the Circle

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Pub Date Aug 13 2019 | Archive Date Aug 09 2019

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Sorcerers fight for the right to exist and fall in love, in this extraordinary alternate world fantasy thriller by award-winning Israeli author Keren Landsman.

Throughout human history there have always been sorcerers, once idolised and now exploited for their powers. In Israel, the Sons of Simeon, a group of religious extremists, persecute sorcerers while the government turns a blind eye. After a march for equal rights ends in brutal murder, empath, moodifier and reluctant waiter Reed becomes the next target. While his sorcerous and normie friends seek out his future killers, Reed complicates everything by falling hopelessly in love. As the battle for survival grows ever more personal, can Reed protect himself and his friends as the Sons of Simeon close in around them?

File Under: Fantasy [ Love Squared | Stuck in the Margins | Emotional Injection | Fight the Power ]
Sorcerers fight for the right to exist and fall in love, in this extraordinary alternate world fantasy thriller by award-winning Israeli author Keren Landsman.

Throughout human history there have...

Advance Praise

"Oh wow. Wow, this book. How am I supposed to write anything now?"

-N.S. Dolkart, author of the GODSERFS trilogy

“A bold new voice in Israeli fantasy... an enchanting debut.”

– Lavie Tidhar, World Fantasy Award winning author of Osama and Central Station

“A fascinating and original urban fantasy… Landsman demonstrates virtuoso writing ability, building a fascinating plot, an impressive combination of sources of inspiration and rare emotional depth, which make reading a sweeping experience and the book suitable not only for fans of fantasy and science fiction but for every reader.”

– Israel Hayom

“The Heart of the Circle is an important step forward for the Israeli genre scene, and in its portrait of young people struggling with both their outsized emotions and an unjust situation, it delivers a powerful, engrossing story.”

– Abigail Nussbaum, author of Asking the Wrong Questions

“Keren Landsman did not write a good book, she wrote an excellent book.” – Saloona

"Oh wow. Wow, this book. How am I supposed to write anything now?"

-N.S. Dolkart, author of the GODSERFS trilogy

“A bold new voice in Israeli fantasy... an enchanting debut.”

– Lavie Tidhar, World...

Available Editions

EDITION Other Format
ISBN 9780857668110
PRICE $14.99 (USD)

Average rating from 31 members

Featured Reviews

What a strangely compelling book this was. And when I say compelling I don't just mean your standard 'one more chapter whoops bedtime was three hours ago' kind of compelling. This book was like quicksand. When I first sent it to my kind I opened it just to check that it had worked, and the next thing I knew I was four chapters deep. I'd plan to read a chapter or two with lunch and lose an afternoon. I was late back from my lunch-break at work yesterday and, yes, there were missed bedtimes.

Pretty impressive, considering I don't even know if I liked it that much. Hell, I honestly can't even pinpoint why I found it as compelling as I did. Take the prose, for example. It might be a result of the translation (this book was first published in Hebrew), but I found it to be on the clunky side. And yet there was an open quality to it, a complete lack of pretense, that made reading the sentences almost effortless. It literally felt like the story was just flowing into me.

The plot, I should have loved. Not because it's exiting or twisty, but because it's really not the focus. Plots happening in the background while characters angst at each other is basically my favourite flavour of book, but even if the plot is in the background it should still make sense. I mean the plot here isn't too complicated; in a world where sorcerers are both common and discriminated against a far-right group wants to kill all the non-sorcerers and take control. Our protagonist, an empath named Reed, and his friends want to stop them. The issue I had is that too often B didn't seem to follow logically from A. It would be like if a car crashed into a tree, and the driver said 'great, now I have to buy more milk!' and the other passengers are like, 'obviously.' There were too many, 'wait, what?' moments from me.

I did really like the worldbuilding. The different kind of sorcerers and how they were introduced. I liked how Reed's empathetic abilities were explored, although I was a little uncomfortable with how they tied into mental health and depression. Honestly though this is not an area I have enough experience in to know if the books portrayal of that was problematic, though the fatalistic way everyone just seemed to accept that all empaths would struggle with depression and suicide seemed wrong to me.

My favourite part of this book was the seers. I liked that they were common, because normally a seer character is rare and OP in any universe. Here they're a dime a dozen, and they're all competing to push things there own way. Little touches like how two seers can become quick friends by jointly "seeing" all the future conversations they might have was one cool example of the unique approach the book takes to them. Although I have to wonder why things are so bad for sorcerers around the world if there are so many seers on their side?

I guess every aspect of this book I could describe as 'pretty good, but...' And yet somehow all of these flawed parts made up a whole that I couldn't read fast enough. Strangely compelling really is the best way I can describe The Heart of the Circle. A big thanks to netgalley for letting me read it.

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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, a publisher I have a love/hate relationship with – they find and publish extraordinary books, but their copy-editing often leaves something to be desired.

Well, I hope the final version of this book is a bit more polished than the ARC I received – which had multiple typos and formatting errors – but the book itself? Definitely 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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The Heart of the Circle is a new adult SF/magical realism novel set in modern Tel-Aviv by Keren Landsman. Originally published in 2018, this English translation was published 13 Aug 2019 by Angry Robot. It's 400 pages and available in paperback, audio, and ebook formats.

The central themes of isolation, acceptance, love, diversity, racism, and betrayal are all present and accounted for. The world building was more or less nonexistent, it's Tel Aviv, and it's quite believable. The magic system is very well done and also believable. Empaths, seers, and other mages/psychics are shunned and discriminated against openly. People fear them, they're literally made to stand in the back of the bus. Against this background, protagonist Reed (an empath) and his friends become politically active to push back against the prejudice and violence.

There's a great deal of angst, a lot of rough language, violence, and a fair bit of sex. It's a compelling read, though I can't put my finger on why it was so compelling for me. I was very interested in the psychosocial changes which accompanied the magic world-building. The fact that the psychic connections are strengthened by physical touch puts a whole new spin on handshakes and hugs, and the author explores that subtly but well. There was also a subplot involving Reed's ex who had moved on to another relationship with a woman. The exploration of the subtle but present bias against bi-sexual people, even (especially?) from people who identify as gay was refreshing to see.

The translation work is good, but not seamless. There are several places in the book where I noticed the prose was off, slightly mechanical or plodding. All in all though it was a very well written book and a good read. The mystery subplot wasn't the main attraction for me about this book, and I wouldn't really recommend it for mystery fans looking for something a little speculative/SF. This is a solid choice for NA/possibly mature YA (language, sex, violent content would make this iffy for YA). It could be a good choice for speculative fiction buddy read or book club selection.

Four stars. Looking forward to seeing more from this author. I've read and reviewed several books recently besides this one which were written by physicians, and they were all good. Maybe we need more ridiculously well trained academically inclined authors writing SF!

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The only word I can find for this book is enthralling, once I started I was hooked and couldn't put it down.
Sometimes I found the plot slow paced, sometimes I couldn't connect to the characters but I never put it down because there was that unknown "something" that made me turn pages.
I can say I loved it, it's entertaining but at the same time it's full of food for thought.
It's set in Israel but it could be any city in the world, it talks about sorcerers but it could also talk about the current world situation. I think this the unknown quantity that made me keep on reading.
On a general level I loved the character development, the complex and fascinating world building and the plot.
I'm happy I discovered a new to me interesting author, I will surely look for other books written by this writer.
Highly recommended!
Many thanks to the publisher and Edelweiss for this ARC, all opinions are mine

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This book is set in Tel Aviv – Landsman is an Israeli author – and the different setting is just one of a range of aspects that sets this book apart. It is set in an alternate dystopian setting where magic-users around the world face a variety of measures designed to limit their freedom. In the US, they are forced to live in ghettos and while apparently Israeli society is more liberal, it doesn’t prevent many attacks on sorcerers, with most police turning a blind eye to such crimes. Reed is one of those fighting for equal rights for the magical community, putting himself at risk as he serves in a coffee bar. I found his edgy character, with his ability to read and diffuse people’s moods, appealing and sympathetic – even when he was being a bit of a prat, which is when you know the author has nailed her protagonist.

There is also a strong cast of supporting characters, notably his flatmate, Daphne, who is a seer. I like the gritty detail that people who can see into the future or become assailed with other people’s strong emotions are prone to depression and mental illness with a high suicide rate among them – it makes sense. I felt that Landsman had thought through carefully what would be the ongoing consequences for someone cursed with such a gift. In the middle of all this turbulence, Reed falls desperately, helplessly in love with another empath. His same-sex relationship with Lee, an American, grows steadily more intense throughout the book and described with passion and tenderness and while this isn’t principally a romance, this relationship plays a pivotal role in the narrative.

I burned through this book in just over two days, staying awake faaar too long to find out what happens next. I like Landsman’s layered characterisation and trick of writing a situation from the inside out – and would happily read anything else she has written. This is one of my favourite reads of the year so far and is highly recommended for anyone who likes reading about magical worlds with a difference. The ebook arc copy of The Heart of the Circle was provided by the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest opinion of the book.

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Reed is unable to hide the fact he is a "moodifier," one with the ability to take in someone's emotions or change them. People often throw their moods toward him and he is regularly treated like a second hand citizen. Regularly exploited and treated as a threat, Reed finds himself living as a waiter and trying to keep his head down when he isn't protesting for sorcerers' rights. His circle of friends are being targeted by a group of religious extremists and the Israeli government does nothing to protect those who have the powers of a sorcerer. When Reed's former love reappears, returning from the United States, he finds himself both emotionally entangled and trying to survive being a target from the Sons of Simeon, an extremist group out for blood. 

I greatly enjoyed that this book was set in Israel, rather than someplace like the United States. It is a fair reminder that extremist activities can take place anywhere. The message is clear about human beings fearing and poorly treating that which they do not understanding. Keren Landsman's Heart of the Circle is perfectly poignant for the current age, and through sometimes the parallels are scary, this is an incredible story to help train readers to have more empathy.

Heart of the Circle is available now from Angry Robot.

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I was a pretty big fan of this one! It was really cool to read an urban/low fantasy book set in Tel Aviv- it gave a breath of fresh air to a genre that can get repetitive. That being said, the focus of the book was definitely on the characters as much as the magic and that worked well since Keren Landsman wrote some great characters. I'd definitely be up for giving another book from this author a try!

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The Heart of the Circle is a contemporary speculative fiction about a version of the world where mages exist but are persecuted by a group of religious zealots called the Sons of Simeon.

The world-building in this book is scarce. There's a brief introduction to the different types of sorcerers, some elemental, others not, and how they relate to each other in this world where magic is normalized, but not necessarily accepted by all. At the same time, the world-building and "world conflict" aren't the point. The point are the pedestrian relationships between the main characters. Reed falls in love while his other friends are trying to steer him towards a future in which he lives. The friendships are deep, and it's so much more about the small moments they want to preserve: going to the pub or club, their mom coming over to meet significant others, what that one friend is really up to, etc. Reed and Lee's relationship had all the trappings of new love, plus an added layer in which they both can see the future through the eyes of a friend. The tension between living in fear and living every day like it's their last was tangible throughout.

They don't go out to defeat the Sons of Simeon and I loved how our characters weren't going to be the ones to fix it. There were definitely layers which might have gone over my head about the conflict in Israel in the present time, but I am absolutely not the authority to speak to those.

Definitely something which deals with the everyday despite allegorical conflicts and magic as a metaphor for the other.

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