Having made a splash during its initial release, award-winning Israeli author Keren Landsman’s urban fantasy novel The Heart of the Circle is seeing an American release, translated from Hebrew by Daniella Zamir. The book takes on issues of community oppression in a world in which those born with magic are hated and feared.
In modern day (-ish) Tel Aviv, a mass movement of religious extremists (the Sons of Simeon) is facing down their targets in a series of protests and counter-protests. Sorcerers are individuals imbued with powers that are described as magic, but may just as well be viewed as mutations. They’re nothing new in this world, alternately abused and exploited throughout history. Reed, out point-of-view character, is referred to as a ‘moody,’ and empath with the wide-ranging control over the emotions of others. He can both take from others in order to stabilize or enhance his own mood, as well being able to spread his own feelings to others. Others have power over elements such as fire and water. The protests have taken an especially dark turn at the book’s outset as a series of unexplained murders has begun to plaque the movement to secure full civil rights for the sorcerers, perhaps designed to deter people from joining in the street protests. The police are marginally involved, but lack both the resources and the will to fully protect this group that exists on the fringes of acceptable. Not only are their abilities widely seen as unnatural, the police seem to view their protest movement as unnecessary rabble-rousing. if people are getting murdered, then perhaps they should stop stirring up trouble.
In this crucial moment for their movement, Reed faces a personal crisis: his ex-boyfriend, Blaze (a sorcerer with control over fire), comes back into town…with a new American girlfriend, Reed responding badly to the fact that the new relationship is with a woman (it’s unclear how we’re meant to read the character’s discomfort with Blaze’s bisexuality, though it does serve as a reminder that short-sightedness exists even among the oppressed). With emotions at the heart of Reed’s story, his turmoil is vividly portrayed, as is his halting and awkward new relationship with another empath, Lee. Landsman weaves between the two main threads of the novel—the political and the personal, though at heart this is a romance set during troubled times. These relationships come to a head just as the violent political situation grows more complex and dangerous, forcing Reed to take a deeply risky chance to secure his own future, and that of others like him.
There are hints of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, though Reed and company could just as easily be seen as X-Men-style mutants—the characters even have names like Blaze, River, Forrest, and Tempest, that reflect their individual powers. It’s a bit on-the-nose, but it makes a useful shorthand in introducing a cast of characters and establishing their abilities, so it’s entirely forgivable, as is some of the slightly awkward humor injected into some of the book’s darker moments. Though the powers of Reed and company are overtly magical, there’s a straddling of urban fantasy and science fiction; just one of the ways in which Landsman toys with genre expectations. We’re not meant to worry too much about the origins and precise natures of the powers possessed by Reed and the other sorcerers, and that’s fine—the book isn’t really about any of that, letting the powers serve as a metaphor for any real-world other-ness. In the Tel Aviv of Heart of the Circle, being queer doesn’t seem to generally be a big problem for people, not with sorcerers running around…which naturally suggests queer-ness itself as one of the book’s major metaphors. The Tel Aviv setting also readily suggests both Palestinian Muslims and Jews, two groups that have certainly known what it is to be segregated and othered as the sorcerers of the book are. In a very real sense, Landsman is telling a story of found family in turbulent times, and joins a new generation of Israeli and Israeli-born writers like Lavie Tidhar and Hagar Yanai, as well as Palestinian-born writers like Majd Kayyal (not all of whom have seen their work come to the United States yet), all of them doing interesting work from a region not yet well known for its speculative fiction. In the case of Landsman, the book also has an explicitly gay male lead, a bit of a welcome novelty in its own right. The world-building here is impressive, as is the willingness to toss aside genre conventions to tell a story of love, community, and acceptance in dark and troubled times.