It's rare that one finds a disconnect between the talent of a writer and the quality of his story. As a general rule, one expects that a gifted writer will produce great novels and vice versa. Unfortunately, in the case of "The Fourth Circle" the reader is treated to a novel that is supremely well written, but which is somehow empty at its core.
Told through seemingly unrelated narratives that are parsed out over seemingly random intervals, "The Fourth Circle" is an ambitious attempt to offer a cosmogony, a structure and perhaps purpose for the universe. While taken as individual units, each story is beautifully structured and written, but as a whole the book is somehow less than the sum of its parts, which is ironic given its lofty ambition.
The ultimate problem is that there is no comprehensive denouement; the reader is drawn into the story of a pregnant artificial intelligence, Sherlock Holmes' last case, the life of alien six armed beings and more, but ultimately the links between these narratives, which define the whole structure of the novel, are lacking. Whether this is because Zivkovic is being intentionally enigmatic or because he just wrote himself into a corner is uncertain, but I think most readers would agree that the payoff, such as it is, is severely lacking.
Which is a shame, because as I have stated above, Zivkovic is a writer of great talent. His phrasing and word selection is impeccable, and he is a master of capturing the mood. From levity to disgust to a sense of otherworldly wonder, his work is imbued with emotion. Moreover, each individual vignette stands nicely on its own, with a particularly impressive entry detailing the exploits of a medieval painter and his humble assistant. Unfortunately, as I have stated above, such laudable accomplishments are not sufficient to make a book with this multi-linear approach work. In the absence of an overarching cohesion, these are just short stories printed out of order.
Nonetheless, I don't want the potential reader to dismiss "The Fourth Circle" out of hand. As I have stated, the author's writing is superb and makes for an enjoyable diversion, and while the novel may fall short, it's complex structure and grand design is at least worth consideration. I wouldn't buy it in hardcover, but checking it out of the library or buying in paperback may well prove worth the time for the adventurous reader.