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Alex Bell – The Ninth Circle

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Good and evil fight against each other, but sometimes it’s the middleman who is in the right.

Publisher: Gollancz (Orion Books)
Pages: 262
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-575-08465-0
First Published: 2008
Date Reviewed: 15th June 2010
Rating: 5/5

Gabriel doesn’t remember how he ended up on the floor of his flat, but he’s been bleeding and there’s a significant amount of money on the kitchen table. He’s able to find out his name pretty quickly but no other information seems to exist. Should he wait for someone to come looking for him, wondering about his absence in their life? He knows that he’s in Hungary and that he speaks Hungarian but that he’s from England and speaks English as well as a possible several other languages. He seems to be a writer – an unpublished one by the look of his zealous manuscripts – and possibly a madman. For Gabriel has been having weird visions since he woke up, of flaming men, and has seen people who don’t appear to actually be there. Why is he receiving packages and whom are they from? And why was his previous self so obsessed with Hell?

The Ninth Circle is a remarkable book, and for the first time in ages my sky-high expectations were justified, ten-fold. Bell has written a novel that successfully takes a look at subjects that have been raised before, but applied them to her characters in a whole new way. The book is structured as a diary but unlike a lot of diary-structured books it’s easy to forget that it’s in the first person.

Bell has done research, and put her education to good use. She’s read up on a variety of topics, some of which aren’t even fundamental to the plot, and delivered back to the reader her findings. On her blog she herself says that she’s interested in World War II (and there is an event described in her book in great detail), and she studied Religious Studies – but baring her own interests it is clear she’s spent time on extra and useful information. This means that you come away with a lot more knowledge on things that aren’t neccersarily imperative to the story itself.

The nucleus of the novel is religion, which I’m actually not too happy about saying because for me it was a shock (a good one) and the thing that first made me start reading faster because it was so unexpected – but I know that won’t be the case for everyone and so it must be said. The Ninth Circle deals with the apocalypse, the beginnings of it that is – there are no full-scale battles – and in case you are put off by this idea I must say that this book is not Christian fiction, in fact although one may believe that Bell is a devoted Christian if you are excited by this suggestion then you will be disappointed later. Bell does not look at the topic with a religious fervour, rather she has stood watching from the sidelines. And if I have appeased those who do not want to read Christian fiction then I should also appease those who do want to read it – Bell is no Philip Pullman, she is fair in her convictions without bias. There is no reason why either camp should not enjoy this book.

Gabriel is a strange character to get used to, not so strange in himself (because you understand early on that there’s going to be a reason for all his visions and feelings) but because he edges toward one notion before seeming to go back to another. Is he a likable person? That’s hard to decide, but he’s certainly compelling and a fantastic fictional hero and narrator. The other character of particular note is Stephomi. You’ll change your mind many a time about him, but is that perhaps what he’s looking for? Because you want to believe he’s good, don’t you? It’s a relief to find out that he is, isn’t it? There is equality between characters and plot, both are as important as each other. The locations in the book are all real places in Budapest and Bell is adept at weaving eerie mists over it to make you curious and longing to visit, while simultaneously being alarmed by the idea.

Bell’s writing is of very high quality; the only thing that sticks out is her reliance on emphasised words. There are a lot of them, sometimes too many, but it does cause you to delve deeper into the presented situation overall, and once you’re a fair way through the book you get used to it, it’s just her style.

The Ninth Circle is brilliant – but do I like it, as in did I feel comfortable reading it? The thing is that you’re forced to think about things that we, as humans, generally try not to think about. Whether or not we believe in God we do in general believe that there is a distinction of sorts between right and wrong and good and bad (though Bell makes the poignant proposal that they are not so different, like heat at it’s hottest feels cold, like the phrase “two sides of the same coin”), and also, to my knowledge, we tend to believe in evil, again no matter our faith. It’s easier to be bad than good, being good takes more effort, and it’s easier to submit to the devil – this is a well known thought in religion, God needs us to work (and so does the devil, but his requests are easier). Submitting to evil brings instant reward, working hard to be good may not and often leads to pain before happiness. We know this, and it scares us, and in introducing us to the demons in an intimate way through the characters Bell is exposing us to what we fear, and that concept is something we worry about – being exposed to our fears.

I wonder if the reader feeling uncomfortable was what Bell had in mind. In fact no matter what she had in mind she’s succeeded in her goal, as I will definitely be thinking about this novel further and recommending it to everyone who talks to me about books. It’s going to stay in my head for a long time and will probably factor in any conversations I may have on religion, the future, and the apocalypse.

Read it and enjoy. Gabriel’s loss is our gain.

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