The Magic Circle is a complex adventure/mystery novel by Katherine Neville, author of The Eight, which is one of my favorite books of all time. As usual with Neville, it combines two story lines, one set in the present, or near-present, and one in the past. The Magic Circle was published in 1998, close to the turn of the new millennium, which plays a significant role in the novel. The “contemporary” plot takes place in 1989, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Ariel Behn, a young nuclear security expert from Idaho, finds herself heir to a mysterious pile of manuscripts when her beloved cousin Sam is supposedly killed by an unknown assassin. We find out early on that he is still alive, and that someone else was killed in his place, so that is not a spoiler. The manuscripts, which had belonged to Ariel’s grandmother, hold the key to an ancient and powerful secret. This secret nearly killed Sam, and now Ariel’s life is in danger. Shortly after Sam's funeral, or rather, the funeral of the man who was killed in his place, Ariel's boss sends her to Europe—France, Austria, and the Soviet Union--with the handsome, mysterious Austrian scientist Wolfgang Hauser, with whom Ariel falls in love at first sight. But is Wolfgang to be trusted? As Ariel is soon to find out, nothing is as it seems.
With every step of her journey through Europe, Ariel discovers something new about her extremely complex family, all of whom were involved in the quest for the secret behind the manuscripts. The story of the Behn family and their lives in Europe between the World Wars, told in flashbacks, is really at the heart of the book. Everyone Ariel meets tells her a different version of the story, and she doesn’t know who can be believed. To her disgust, Ariel finds out that many of them were involved with the Nazis and some of them were close friends with Hitler. It appears that Ariel’s grandmother’s manuscripts have to do with a series of powerful objects called the Sacred Hallows, including a spear, a sword, a platter, a nail, and a gaming board, which, when they are in the hands of one person, will give their owner immense power. Over the years, several Roman emperors, Attila the Hun, Charlemagne, Genghis Khan, and Hitler, among others, have sought these objects. There is also a connection between the objects and a power grid under the surface of the earth. Supposedly, whoever controls the objects can usher in a new aeon (a two-thousand-year cycle). Today, the Sacred Hallows will remind readers of the Deathly Hallows of Harry Potter fame, but The Magic Circle was written long before Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Besides the story of Ariel and the Behn family, there is a parallel, but much shorter, plot set in ancient Rome, Jerusalem, and Britain, during the last days of Jesus and for approximately thirty years afterwards. Most, but not all, of these chapters feature Joseph of Arimathea as the leading character. He attempts to understand what really happened in Jesus’s last days. Of course, the Sacred Hallows appear in this section, too, as the Roman emperors Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero are all in search of them. Part of the fun of The Magic Circle is discovering how the plot set in the ancient world ties in with Ariel’s manuscripts.
The Magic Circle is a wonderful book. Ariel is a complex character, who has faults and makes mistakes. She is too trusting of the wrong people, throughout much of the book, but she eventually realizes her mistakes. This is an incredibly complex book, and Neville's knowledge of history is amazing. There are long narrative passages detailing historical events, and I have noticed that some readers have expressed their impatience with them, but I disagree. They add enormously to the book, and are ultimately rewarding, if you have the patience for them. This is not a book to be read quickly, and there is nothing wrong with that. It makes the reader think, and try to discover how all these historical events are related to each other, and to the main plot of the book. The convoluted relationships between various members of the Behn family, including incest, rape, and kidnapping, might be hard for some readers to take, and many readers have expressed a desire for a family tree. But including a family tree would spoil things, because no one is related to the others in exactly the way you think at first. It might help to keep a notebook to keep track of the family relationships, though. The Julio-Claudian emperors such as Caligula and Nero also had an extremely complex family tree, and I am sure Neville is using this as a parallel.
Readers of The Da Vinci Code might see some similarities between that novel and The Magic Circle, but The Magic Circle came first and, in my opinion, it is much better written. It is a long and very complex book, even more so than Neville’s The Eight, but if you stay with it, it will prove rewarding.
The Magic Circle is available from the Browsing Collection in the Shapiro Undergraduate Library.