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Book: “The Vicious Circle” by Katherine St. John
Publishing Info: William Morrow & Company, September 2022
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from the publisher at ALAAC22.
Book Description: A perfect paradise? Or a perfect nightmare?
On a river deep in the Mexican jungle stands the colossal villa Xanadu, a wellness center that’s home to The Mandala, an ardent spiritual group devoted to self-help guru Paul Bentzen and his enigmatic wife Kali. But when, mysteriously, Paul suddenly dies, his entire estate–including Xanadu–is left to his estranged niece Sveta, a former model living in New York City.
Shocked and confused, Sveta travels to Mexico to pay her respects. At first, Xanadu seems like a secluded paradise with its tumbling gardens, beautiful people, transcendent vibe, and mesmerizing de-facto leader Kali. But soon the mystical façade wears thin, revealing a group of brainwashed members drunk on false promises of an impossible utopia and a disturbing, dangerous belief system–and leader–guiding them.
As the sinister forces surrounding Sveta become apparent, she realizes, too late, she can’t escape. Frantic and terrified, she discovers her only hope for survival is to put her confidence in the very person she trusts the least.
Review: Thank you to William Morrow & Company for giving me an ARC of this novel!
On that first night of the ALA Annual Conference, there is always a bit of a free for all in the exhibit hall as publishers unleash ARCs of books unto the librarian masses. In the recent times I have gone I always tell myself, ‘be discerning! Don’t grab for the sake of grabbing! You know what books you want, prioritize those!’. And, as one can imagine, that never works, and I end up with many books because panic tells me so. But hey, I’ve found some fun books this way, and that is why I don’t kick myself too hard when I do it. That is how I got “The Vicious Circle” by Katherine St. John: I passed the table, saw the cover, read the back and said to myself ‘IT’S A CULT THRILLER!’ and shoved it in my tote bag. I finally sat down to read it a couple months after the fact, and it was…. a decidedly mixed bag.
In terms of a cult thriller, “The Vicious Circle” is pretty successful if only because it knows what notes to hit and doesn’t stray from it. The details The Mandala pick and choose from a lot of other true life cults; you get a little People’s Temple/Jonestown, you get a little Rajneeshpuram, you get a little NXIVM, with sprinkles of Scientology and Children of God for good measure. It’s a true smorgasbord of cult ideologies, and it was kind of fun for me to be able to be like ‘oh I get that reference’. There is also an effective ‘frog in the pot of boiling water’ pacing as our protagonist Sveta arrives at a compound called Xanadu in the Mexican jungle after getting word that she has inherited a vast fortune from her late uncle Paul. Who just so happened to be an incredibly successful wellness author and icon, influential enough to have a compound called Xanadu in the Mexican jungle. Sveta thinks that it’s going to be easy to settle the estate and everything else with Kali, her uncle Paul’s wife, and then begins to realize that maybe things aren’t what they seem. I always enjoy the ‘oh shit’ moments in a cult thriller, and St. John definitely has many of them coming at a quick pace. It makes for a fun and easy thriller that is, in a way, comforting to a reader who likes these kinds of stories. And I fully realize that ‘comforting’ is a strange word choice given the fact we are talking about a potentially dangerous cult. But it kept me turning the pages to see how it all shook out for Sveta as she goes head to head with the Mandala and its devotees.
I think that some of the more negative aspects are pretty easy traps to fall into in a book like this, mostly because you need them for the story to work if you don’t want to do a lot of difficult literary heavy lifting. The biggest for me is that Sveta feels VERY naive and susceptible to being duped when I’m not quite certain that she would be. I’m not talking about falling for the cult angle, as that isn’t really the issue. It’s more the fact that she has found herself in a very precarious position: isolated in the jungle, newly named as a beneficiary of millions upon millions of dollars, and with a woman who has EVERY reason to want that money, but feels like she can trust said woman. I found it very frustrating that she took everything that Kali said at face value. You met her once for dinner and it was a nice meal. Fine. But your uncle CLEARLY kept her out of his will for a reason, especially since it sounds like his death wasn’t sudden. I understand why the story needs her to be this way, but I kind of needed more reasons for her to be this way. It made Sveta’s motivations feel more there to drive the plot as opposed to trying to make the two work in a cohesive and believable way.
All in all “The Vicious Circle” is entertaining enough and has enough suspense to keep me engaged and interested. It doesn’t really stand out too much from other run of the mill cult thrillers, but as someone who loves a cult thriller that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Rating 6: Pretty standard cult thriller reading. Doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s entertaining enough.
“The Vicious Circle” isn’t included on many specific Goodreads lists yet, but it would fit in on “Cults and Communes in Fiction”.