The Magic Circle

by Katherine Neville

Published by Ballantine Books

554 pages, 1998

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Reviewed by Beth Dora Reisberg

Katherine Neville's first novel, The Eight, was an international bestseller, a two-tiered story that mixed chess, the French Revolution, the oil embargo of the 1970s, and romance on the Mediterranean Sea. I couldn't put it down for days. Her second novel, A Calculated Risk, was a New York Times Notable Book. It was an engaging and fun romp through the world of banking and high finance and opera. Neville has become one of my favorite writers.

The Magic Circle, her third novel, is Neville's most ambitious book yet. It is a story about the big picture and transformation; it is the story of an aeon -- a 2,000 year cycle -- that began at the rise of the Roman Empire and the birth of Christianity and that is approaching its completion right now. This book is about humankind's quest to harness the power of the earth and heavens for such a transformation.

The heroine of The Magic Circle is Ariel Behn who calls herself a "girl nuke," and works as a nuclear security expert in Idaho. When we first meet her she is driving in treacherous snow conditions on her way back to Idaho from San Francisco where she left her brother's shrouded remains in a casket, blown apart by some unknown bomb while operating in an advisory capacity for the military. His death is as sudden as his disappearance from her life some years ago.

Ariel soon learns that she's been bequeathed with precious family papers that her brother, Sam, had inherited from their grandmother. Why she has been given these documents and why everyone in her family wants them before she can uncover what they are is what Ariel must find out. But this wouldn't be a Katherine Neville novel without huge amounts of history and science, puzzles and etymology thrown in. As Ariel pursues the meaning of the manuscripts she uncovers the hard truths about her complex family and their role in major twentieth century events such as the Boer Wars in South Africa and World War II.

Like Scheherazade, the story teller in One Thousand and One Nights, Neville weaves tales within tales, only this time they go backwards into history as we learn about ancient initiation and transformation rituals, runes, Uranus, power spots, who Jesus might have been, and what the Song of Solomon may actually mean.

Neville's historical segments are delicious and compelling. The reader becomes a local observer of, for example, the last week of Jesus's life, seeing the events from Pontius Pilate and Joseph of Arimathea's view.

The magic circle evokes a place to do ritual, to connect with our community, be it the neighborhood, our families, friends or the planet. It is for each of us to enter into the magic circle and transform. This book provokes questions and imaginings, and rereading. Neville delivers another tour de force, and leaves us wanting more.

Writer and editor Beth Dora Reisberg writes book reviews and interviews of thinkers and writers on the leading edge. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.