Another sorcerer has been murdered at a rally for equal rights, struck down by the terrorist organization called the Sons of Simeon. As the survivors gather and comfort one another, Reed feels their pain. Literally. He’s an empath who can experience and manipulate the feelings of everyone around him. He knows their morale is low, but he’s distracted by wondering: when exactly will he be next? He knows he’s going to die because his roommate, a sorcerer who can see and manipulate the paths of the future, has confirmed it. But she’s doing everything she can to keep him in the future where he’s alive, and so Reed keeps going to work, keeps volunteering to train younger sorcerers, and generally keeps on living in an alternate Israel that doesn’t much want him.
In this Israel, for reasons that are not made clear, sorcerers are second-class citizens who are subject to mandatory self-identification and state control. They have to wear specific colors to identify their powers—elemental manipulation, time manipulation, or emotion manipulation—and stick to designated areas everywhere they go. Separate entrances, separate doors on the bus, and very limited job prospects are only a few of the indignities they face in a society that fears and discriminates against sorcery.
Sorcerers being required to get on the back of the bus, and stand inside the “white section,” is an obvious parallel with the American Jim Crow laws. Being forced to wear certain identifying colors also creates symbolic parallels with yellow stars identifying Jews in Nazi Germany, as well as the pink triangles that designated homosexuals. Reed is an openly gay, Jewish sorcerer who lives at the intersection of these present and historical instances of state-imposed discrimination, as do most of his friends. There’s a lot of multivalent symbolism that could have gone in a lot of powerful directions.
Could have. The imagery does a lot of work—but the rest of the book doesn’t. All the promise of the first chapter and the engagement with big, tough ideas is squandered over the course of the novel, which meanders its way through so many conversations and scenes that go absolutely nowhere that everything feels lost and watered down.
The plotting is sketchy at best, and the limp, cludgy prose does very little to improve the worldbuilding or the characterization. There’s just so much of it, and none of it snaps. There are very few authors whose prose is so good that I would gladly read an aside about standardized tests (p. 223), and Landsman isn’t one of them. The timing is all wrong, too: an explanation of the slang would have been helpful if it hadn’t come almost a third of the way into the book (pp. 100-101). The dialogue is like things you might overhear on the subway: vaguely interesting, but ultimately forgettable, and a little bit annoying as it goes on and on and on. The Heart of the Circle would have been twice as good if it had been half as long.
Part of the issue is also that the book tries to emphasize the anxiety of living in a state of constant dread, and the exhaustion of living in a state of constant vigilance. But that quickly goes from poignant to boring when the prose is so uninteresting. I have enough stress in my life without a book belaboring the mundane realities of stress in a fantasy world, too. I also have a hard time suspending my disbelief in this particular world because while the stress is realistic, the situations are not.
Landsman also invests a lot of time trying to convince us that psychically powerful people are all downtrodden. Nice, but I don’t really buy it. When there are people who have more power—and whose power, if overused, literally steals the life force from the “normies” around them—that’s not usually a recipe for disenfranchisement. It might be a recipe for dictatorships, social hierarchies, and conflict, but not for the kind of helplessness that all the characters spend so much time exhibiting. And none of the intermittent asides about history or world politics really help. I still can’t imagine how a world that has had sorcerers from the very beginning of human history could have ended up looking like this.
Also, American sorcerers are kept on reservations? I don’t even know where to start with that. It blows past the very real history of Japanese internment camps, the current border camps, and the tragic history of Native American reservations with such blasé hand-waving that I’m convinced Landsman did almost no research. There was not much sensitivity on display here: when asked, the Americans sort of shrug at their own plight and say that it was better in Israel. If it’s meant to be social commentary, it’s too unrealistic and obscure to pack any punch. It just reads as misguided.
I think Landsman might be trying for an X-Men style social commentary, but X-Men is about a ragtag bunch of outcasts who have to combine their odd powers to accomplish things. Sorcerers aren’t guys who awkwardly can’t stop shooting lasers from their eyes; they have control over the elements, over the future, and over emotions. A moderately competent group of six sorcerers can stop a rain of bullets and alter fate. Hell, Reed can stop a terrorist attack just by himself. At no point did I truly believe that Reed and his friends were underdogs.
I also didn’t really believe anyone would die. We know from the first pages that there will be some kind of rally in which Reed is killed, but the plot hiccups and stumbles through roommate disagreements, meals with parents, and an awkward romance before it ever delivers us to the fated moment. And then that moment happens two-thirds of the way through, and we know that’s not the end because there’s a thick chunk of book left. There’s a death out of left field to fill in another hundred pages before the final denouement, and then an anticlimactic climax that wasn’t clever enough to justify 350 pages of characters bickering and doing a lot of shockingly boring magic.
I’m mostly talking about the time manipulation, which actually could have been awesome. Sorcerers, called damuses (after Nostradamus), seeing and choosing different futures from moment to moment? The concept is solid. Brandon Sanderson did it to great effect in the Reckoners trilogy and there have been a lot of good books dealing with timelines recently (The Future of Another Timeline, This Is How You Lose the Time War, Alice Payne Arrives, etc.). But in The Heart of the Circle, damuses mostly seem to use their powers to avoid things. Avoid awkward meet-the-parents conversations, avoid death—and it’s all treated the same. We specifically don’t see damuses doing much, which steals a lot of drama from the story. They talk about the future and get upset about the future, but there’s almost no action. And maybe that would have been a welcome change of pace if other sorcerers did things, but mostly they do nothing too. There are occasional practice sessions, but for a book about people who can throw fireballs and explode people’s lungs and control their minds, this is the tamest possible narrative.
The villains also fail to provide much action or drama. There’s no menace to the Sons of Simeon. Their motives are vague beyond wanting to destroying sorcerers for religious reasons—but also to recruit sorcerers to smash the current system? Their unclear mission statement is made worse by the fact that they work via faceless intermediaries, assassins who show no emotion and say nothing. The only link we have to this shadowy organization is Ivy, a former friend of Reed’s. Reed claims to be devastated by Ivy’s betrayal, but they have a remarkably civil conversation at one point and part cordially. They act more like rival colleagues, up for a not-very-big promotion, than members of violently opposing factions.
Lest you think that this is about the principles of peaceful resolution, The Heart of the Circle is not committed to nonviolence. It’s not even really committed to principles of consent. Though Reed and others make a rightfully big deal about needing consent to manipulate others’ emotions, Reed then breaks that trust at several key moments. He does so only to protect lives, and I can see arguments on either side of the debate being interesting. But they never really happen. Reed faces no consequences for his manipulation, gets to remain the hero, and gets to keep his aw-shucks attitude. The only repercussion is a stern talking-to from his ex, who politely agrees to disagree and then pleads with him to remain friends. I’ll take WTF for $200, Alex.
Landsman may want to talk about big issues, but she doesn’t want to deal with the consequences of the world she set up. It’s true of issues of consent, of violence, and of discrimination. Reed gets fired from his job because the Sons of Simeon target his boss, but his boss then ensures Reed gets such a generous severance package that he can afford to spend all his time at home with his new boyfriend. Plus, he already had a second job. Gee, discrimination sure is momentarily annoying.
The same also goes for the religious issues at stake. There are some gestures in the direction of religious violence, and even those aren’t super realistic. “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” is scrawled menacingly on a wall (p. 221), and the characters are all very upset. Yeah, okay, but that’s from the English translation of the Bible done for a Christian king in the 1600s. “Witch” is not a universally accepted translation, either. Even if we account for zealots being uninterested in linguistics and interpretation, why aren’t there religious rebuttals? You could so easily argue that sorcerers have divine gifts, or that they are strangers who deserve protection per Exodus 22:21. Maybe Landsman isn’t interested in the religious aspects of this—but too bad. This underpins the whole conflict, so why isn’t it fleshed out? There is also zero engagement with Palestine, or the Arab or Muslim world, and very little engagement with Judaism. For a region and nation steeped in religious conflict already, I would have expected a more nuanced take.
Even if we disregard all the Big Issues, The Heart of the Circle misses on the smaller interpersonal interactions, too. I wanted to like this romance of two wounded souls so much. Reed and Lee get off on the wrong foot, have both been hurt before, and have to get over themselves to really reach the other person. That’s so much potential! But their flirting is awkward, their heart-to-hearts aren’t terribly emotional, and they suddenly consummate their growing affection in a police station bathroom before having a chat with an officer. What? And more importantly, why? It’s not fun or funny. Nothing about it feels significant. It’s just head-scratching. This is not how a well-plotted book treats a meaningful relationship. Landsman then tries to make up for it with sex and romance scenes that veer too far into the saccharine, but it was too late. I couldn’t bring myself to care.
This is trying to be a book about making the most of your time on earth, about equality and peaceful protest, and about queer love. I applaud the ambition, but I can’t recommend the result: a muddled slog that, despite being about an empath, didn’t make me feel anything.