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SPFBO #6 Finals Review

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The Circle by Mats Strandberg and Sara Bergmark Elfgren

The Circle by Mats Strandberg and Sara Bergmark Elfgren
Book Name: The Circle (Cirkeln)
Author: Mats Strandberg and Sara Bergmark Elfgren
Publisher(s): The Overlook Press (US) Hammer (UK) Raben & Sjogren (Sweden)
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Ebook
Genre(s): YA Urban Fantasy
Release Date: May 2, 2013 (US) June 7, 2012 (UK) April 2011 (Sweden)

The majority of the books I read, whether fantasy or another genre, were written in English and published in either America or Britain. It is, therefore, a wonderful surprise when I stumble across a book that has been translated from another language and springs from another culture. It gives me a chance to broaden my literary horizons and read something that might otherwise not have come to me.

The Circle came to me, as so many other books have, through Tumblr. I was a little uncertain – we’ve all read plenty of YA fantasy about high school girls who have to balance their daily lives and unexpected magical powers – but when I saw the book was translated from Swedish, I was intrigued enough to give it a shot. As far as I can remember, the only translated fantasy books I’ve read were magical realism, translated from Spanish, and I was curious as to how a Swedish novel might compare.

The short answer is: it can’t.

This isn’t through any fault of either Spanish literature or Swedish. It’s simply a matter of subgenre: Trying to compare magical realism to a more general fantasy is like trying to compare hard sci-fi to soft. There are certainly similarities, and someone viewing from the outside might see them as essentially the same thing, but the two have very different aims and very different ways of trying to achieve those aims.

I think it’s simply the fact that it’s a matter of genre that makes The Circle feel so familiar. After all, “high school girl gets powers and must save the world” is a familiar trope to people who read the right books, and the people most likely to read The Circle are also those most like to have watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Both feature teen girls dealing the difficulty of saving the world and passing their classes, and both feature the girls fighting demons. The differences, however, are enough to make The Circle feel fresh and new to an audience familiar with Buffy.

For one thing, the demons are not vaguely humanoid monsters that the heroine must defeat through violent force; they are more insidious creatures, capable of convincing people to do their will through subtle persuasion.

For another, there isn’t just one Chosen One in this series. There are six.

Drawn together by a blood moon, Minoo, Anna-Karin, Vanessa, Rebecka, Ida, and Linnéa sleepwalk to an abandoned fairground, where they learn that they are the only people standing between the town of Engelsfors – and the whole world – and destruction at the hands of demons. They are witches, and each one of them has a connection to an element which gives them mystical abilities.

This was the other part that made me hesitate, though it simultaneously drew me in. Each one of the girls seems to fit a different group from the high school: Minoo is the smart one, Anna-Karin and Linnéa are the outcasts (though of very different sorts), Ida and Rebecka are popular girls (again, of very different sorts), and Vanessa is the girl who manages to straddle the outskirts and popularity. They each also have a secret, most of which are either quickly revealed or easily guessed. However, this small drawback is something that can be easily overlooked when you’ve gotten into the plot. Each girl is distinct and well-written, and in each of the girls’ storylines, the author never falls into easy traps or shortcuts in characterizing them.

Overall, The Circle feels a lot like a book any American might be familiar with. It doesn’t have the grand battles of Buffy, but it does have a delightfully suspenseful build to the climax. There are red herrings galore and character development that feels natural and easy to believe. By the end of the book, the cores of the characters remain the same, but they have grown from their struggles with the demons and from their dealings with magic.

The Circle is the first book in a trilogy, and if I may take just a moment to speak to the structure of a trilogy, I think it does an excellent job in opening the story. It gives us characters who are easy to identify and easy to relate to, and even if the struggle is as simple as being good versus evil, there is enough doubt as to just who the evil is to keep things interesting. It is impossible for the girls to know who they can trust, especially when they may find themselves caught up in a battle between themselves. While unexpected friendships are, ironically, only to be expected, it shouldn’t be too much of a spoiler to say that there are still tensions in the group by the end. Ida is the quintessential mean girl bully, and it would very likely take more than an impending apocalypse to get her to truly be friends with high school outcasts.

As to the rest of the ending, I will only say that it is satisfying in every way. There are no frustrating cliffhangers, but it wasn’t so thoroughly resolved that I had no interest in reading the sequels. So, if you’re looking for something a little different and very exciting, give the Engelsfors trilogy a shot. You won’t regret it.


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