by Madeline Miller
Genre: Fantasy, Mythology
Length: 394 Pages
Published April 2018
Blurb via GoodReads:
In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child—not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power—the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.
Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.
But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.
This book was fantastic; there’s something immensely satisfying about stories that take vilified, powerful female characters and take the time to humanize them. Circe is not just the one-dimensional sorceress who gets her jollies by turning sailors into pigs in this story, although there absolutely will be sailors turned into pigs. Madeline Miller lets us watch Circe grow from an outsider in her family of gods to a force to be reckoned with.
The prose is just lovely; I listened to the audio book, and I really enjoyed the narrator’s voice, although I did have to turn up the speed, as she read quite slowly. Miller’s writing style is lyrical and engaging.
One very strong aspect of this book is that it was able to strike a very delicate balance; it portrayed Circe sympathetically enough for the reader to forge a deep connection with her, but it did so without shying away too much from her flaws. The result is a nuanced protagonist who feels intimately real. Circe herself struggles with some of her flashes of cruelty. Late in the book, when a character is trying to soothe her misgivings about her past behavior, she says, “Do not try to take my regrets from me.”
This was one of my favorite moments of the book and really encapsulates a lot of the important themes. Many characters in this story behave in selfish and cruel ways. One thing that separates Circe from many of the other characters, gods and humans alike, is a capacity for regret when she has done wrong. Circe, unlike many of the other gods, seems to have a conscience. She is prone to lashing out because of fear or anger, but she has a desire to be better and a capacity for gentleness.
Anyone with a soft spot for mythology should give Circe chance, but you don’t need to be versed in these stories to like this book. While existing knowledge of the stories involved adds an element of enjoyment to the story, Miller does an excellent job of providing all the information you’ll need in order to follow the story without it ever feeling overly bogged down in the details of ancient mythology. The storytelling is very natural and immersive. I look forward to reading Song of Achilles, also by Miller, which I’ve somehow neglected on my Kindle for quite some time now.
If you read and enjoyed Circe…
You may want to check out Till We Have Faces, by C. S. Lewis, a retelling of a classic Cupid and Psyche myth, told from the perspective of Orual, Psyche’s older sister. Like Circe, Orual is much reviled in her original myth. Both of these retellings humanize these woman and force us to think about their mythology in a new light. Till We Have Faces is a masterful piece of storytelling by Lewis, full of strong female characters, the mysteries of the gods, and sisterly love.
“Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.”