Review by Frank Plowright
Cixin Liu is a Chinese science fiction author, writer of several novels and of several short story collections. He’s imaginative and prolific, a back cover quote from the New Yorker likening him to Arthur C. Clarke. The Circle is part of an ambitious project in which comic creators of various nationalities are brought together to adapt Liu’s stories, in this case Frenchman Xavier Besse taking care of the adaptation, the art and the colour.
Although promoted as a science fiction writer, in the graphic novels at least, the science fiction content is greatly variable, and The Circle features just the merest hint, with historical drama instead the form, and pre-industrial revolution China the location. Liu starts with two colleagues meeting again, former monarch Ying Zheng on the verge of execution and regretting his association with Jing Ke, first arriving in Qin as an emissary of another king, and claiming to have a secret that will change the world.
Besse, via Liu, builds the premise phenomenally well, his art presenting detail economically achieved in showing the culture of the times. The characters are strong and captivating, and Besse brings through the interesting idea of power based on superstition and belief. From a young age Zheng believes it’s his destiny to usher in a finer world, and despite negative prophecies of his fate should he invade Yan, Zheng does so and unites six kingdoms. Liu also toys well with what readers know to be false, if not positively dangerous, such as Zheng ingesting mercury in the belief it will prolong his life. Ke presents as reasonable and learned, yet believes that if he can calculate infinite mathematical numbers he will ascertain the language of the heavens. It’s bonkers, but very convincingly rolled out, needing two pages of text to explain the mathematical process.
To date, at seventy pages The Circle is one of the shorter adaptations in this series, yet it never feels as such due to the story density. Ke’s plan requires using Zheng’s entire army as human processors duplicating computer calculations, with the court naturally uneasy about possible vulnerability. Meanwhile Zheng’s mercury ingestion is taking its toll. There’s a simplicity to the downfall sequence that’s been hanging over the story since the opening pages, and science fiction fans shouldn’t be put off by the lack of it in an enthralling tale of power and hubris.