Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Review - The Magic Circle by Jenny Davidson

[The following review is part of the Nowhere But Home blog tour managed by TLC Book Tours.  For a full list of host blogs for the tour, see the tour page.  For more on Jenny Davidson and her work, visit her website, jennydavidson.blogspot.com.]

By Ryan St. Onge

Click here for the Amazon listing
About halfway through this novel I was reminded of an interactive work of theater called Sleep No More that had runs in both London and New York (neither of which I attended). According to the interview I heard with the creator of the project, Sleep No More is set in a five floor building which is transformed into a turn-of-the-century hotel. Rather than traditional theater where audience members are asked to sit and watch the action, In Sleep No More the members of the audience, who are given masks upon entry to maintain anonymity but no program, are free to wander aimlessly throughout the building and into any of the various settings. They are encouraged to open drawers and closets, read diaries and interact with the actors (who remain silent throughout the performance). The story, or what little there is of it, is loosely based on MacBeth. Like I said, interactive. 

Let me be absolutely clear on something. Jenny Davidson's novel The Magic Circle has nothing to do with this macabre bit of theater, but until about a week ago, Sleep No More the closest thing to Live Action Role Playing that I had ever heard of. That's right. I have lived almost four decades completely unaware of the entire sub-culture of live action role playing games (henceforth referred to as LARP or LARPing). Some of you are probably rolling your eyes at me. How could I have never heard of LARPing? Surely I've heard of Dungeons and Dragons.

Well, yes. But I had always assumed that was something that a certain demographic of kids did with dice and cards in their parent's basement. I was unaware of the massive cottage industry of dressing up, equipping oneself with all sorts of expensive paraphernalia and wandering around pre-determined environments engaging in some sort of elaborate game complete with scoring. Apparently there are literally thousands of adults who do this and I was completely unaware. Me, a self-avowed nerd. I should hand in my card.

Now, I'm not particularly interested in LARPing. I'm not about to skip out and buy myself a broadsword, but to each their own. But it's these sorts of discoveries about the world that keep me in books. I love it that even at my rapidly advancing age I am able to discover pockets and corners of this world of which I was previously ignorant. Yay books!

So anyway, The Magic Circle is about three female friends who are particularly interested in LARPing, specifically in New York City. The three friends are on a seemingly endless quest to concoct and then play an elaborate urban role playing game. But much like games, reality is not exactly what it seems. Anna, the mysterious Swedish-born, occult-obsessed woman next door isn't being entirely forthwith about her past and when her brother shows up on the scene, the lines between the game and reality begin to blur. Much like Sleep No MoreThe Magic Circle is loosely based on another classic story. In this case it is the Bacchae by Euripides (If you are unfamiliar with the Bacchae, never fear, Davidson has you covered. She provides a more than adequate summary of the story within the narrative).

Jenny Davidson
Viewed simply as a narrative, The Magic Circle is fairly weak. The story is simplistic, slow and often aimless, especially toward the beginning. Davidson provides very little background about the three main characters and it took me a long time to differentiate between the three as separate entities. Their careers seem to be categorically dismissed in a manner that left me wondering where these three got all their free time. But not too much, because I really didn't develop any strong feelings for her characters. The story seemed to jump across large swathes of time (work, presumably) but as the novel progressed, the narrative did began to take a certain shape and dimension, but it never fleshes out as completely as I thought it could have. 

But to read The Magic Circle simply as a narrative it to sell this novel short. Behind the flimsy narrative is a discussion worth having. The Magic Circle is, at its core, a novel about infantilization and the modern glorification of games and play in lieu of earnest relationships and honest dialogue. Davidson spends a lot of time inside the heads of her protagonists, chronicling their neuroses and their inabilities to communicate with family and friends on a mature field. Instead, the characters (and many of us) use games, whether they are role-playing games, sports etc... as a form of social lubrication. Not that there is anything particularly wrong with using games as a way in which to foster and facilitate friendships but, like so much else, there is more than one face on a die. 

This theme got me to thinking about an exceptional book I read a couple of years back called Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults and Swallow Citizens Whole by Benjamin R. Barber. Barber contends that modern markets and the media that drives them have created an endless maze of escapism that has ostensibly "dumbed down" our population via movies, music, television and, yes.... games. While I don't think Davidson was thinking specifically about Barber's thesis or the infantilization of adults in specific, this novel does address the issue, even if by accident, and that's a dialogue worth having. 

In this vein, the thematic centerpiece of the novel (for me, anyway) is the Christmas dinner at Ruth's mother's house. Ruth's mother is a collector of vintage toys and is given a first edition copy of The Game of Life from 1860. Despite the fact that the game is a historical artifact in the eyes of Ruth's mother, Ruth's friend Anna suggests they play the game. What follows is a flash of brilliance in an otherwise mediocre read. The episode speaks volumes about the games people play with each other within their own personal relationships all within the strict confines of an actual, physical game being played. What isn't said becomes every bit as important as what is said.

In fact, had Davidson edited this already short novel a bit more and had it centered around this particular episode rather reaching for the parallelism between The Bacchae and reality, it would have made for an exceptional short story. As it stands, The Magic Circle is an accessible novel about a subject that will is relatively unknown to most readers and could potentially be an excellent way in which to introduce the notions of LARPing to readers (such as me) who have never heard of it. Unfortunately, it is a great idea fallen a bit flat. There are moments in this novel, but they are too few and too far between.

Three stars.

About the Reviewer:  Ryan is a Canadian citizen lost somewhere in Asia, which is a terrible place to be lost if you like reading English books.  He gets by via second hand book stores and his Kindle.  If given the choice (though he rarely is) he prefers literary fiction and non-fiction.  Oh yeah... and zombies.  Ryan has been an avid reader of zombie lore for over 20 years.  That's either awesome or utterly sad.  You can choose.  And if you want to see what else Ryan has been reading, you can visit his personal blog, Reading in Taiwan.


  1. I've never heard of Live Action Role Playing either till you just mentioned it :)
    It's too bad The Magic Circle fell a bit flat. Interesting about that Christmas dinner scene being such a stand out for you though.

  2. I'm glad that you found things to appreciate about this book even though it didn't turn out to be one of your favorite reads.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour!

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