by Madeline Miller
In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe has neither the look nor the voice of divinity, and is scorned and rejected by her kin. Increasingly isolated, she turns to mortals for companionship, leading her to discover a power forbidden to the gods: witchcraft.
When love drives Circe to cast a dark spell, wrathful Zeus banishes her to the remote island of Aiaia. There she learns to harness her occult craft, drawing strength from nature. But she will not always be alone; many are destined to pass through Circe’s place of exile, entwining their fates with hers. The messenger god, Hermes. The craftsman, Daedalus. A ship bearing a golden fleece. And wily Odysseus, on his epic voyage home.
There is danger for a solitary woman in this world, and Circe’s independence draws the wrath of men and gods alike. To protect what she holds dear, Circe must decide whether she belongs with the deities she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.
Why oh why did I not read this book sooner?
After I finally read and fell in love with The Song of Achilles in 2017, it was no wonder that Circe was my most anticipated release of 2018 and yet I just couldn’t bring myself to read it for fear that I wouldn’t love it as much. I needn’t have worried, this book is fantastic.
I’m not going to spend this review comparing Circe with The Song of Achilles because, other than being retellings of Greek Myth, the two of them aren’t similar at all. Yes, there are some characters who reappear because they appear in both myths, but in no way is this book a sequel to The Song of Achilles. All I will say is that if you go into this book expecting The Song of Achilles again, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
Where The Song of Achilles was a more traditional story of adventure, war and romance, Circe is much more of a character study. Given that Circe spends many years exiled to an isolated island, she spends much of this book alone and with her own thoughts, so this is very much a character-based book rather than a plot-based book. If you are the kind of reader who prefers plot and action and adventure, you might find this book a little slow, but it’s still so worth reading.
In fact considering how much of the book Circe spends alone, Miller made those scenes of introspection and exploration so compelling. In many ways this book is asking a question: what makes a witch?
Unsurprisingly, Madeline Miller’s writing is gorgeous. There’s something about the way she writes that sweeps me away and makes me feel as though I’m in a dream. In fact her writing, the way she describes the beaches and the temples, reminded me of the holidays to Crete my parents took me on when I was a child, when I first fell in love with Greek mythology. It was so comforting to be reminded of that.
In all honesty I knew very little about Circe before I read this book. I knew her name, I knew she was a witch and I knew that, in Greek myth, she turned sailors into pigs. Other than that I knew practically nothing about her and I don’t think you need to know anything about Greek myth at all to enjoy this novel. I loved getting to know this woman and her story for the first time through this novel and looking up the myths about her afterwards to see what Miller had chosen to include and what she’d decided to twist. If you’re very familiar with Greek mythology, though, this book is abundant with little Easter eggs from one enthusiastic classicist to another.
I think it takes real skill to write a character from childhood to adolescence to adulthood in one book, especially when that book is less than 400 pages long, and to do it well, and yet that’s exactly what Miller does here. By the end of this novel I didn’t want to say goodbye to Circe because I’d gotten to know her so well and I’d completely fallen in love with her, and when she’d finally finished telling me her tale it felt like a loss, but for me this story was the ideal length. It was the perfect balance between Circe’s exploration of witchcraft and self-worth and her encounters with other people from Greek myth and the relationships she builds with them, and I loved how it was told as though Circe was looking back on her long life as a much older and wiser woman.
Though she is born to gods, Circe has much more in common with mortals than the rest of her complicated family, much to their disappointment, and yet she’s not quite human enough either. Much like the women who would suffer through witch trials many, many years after Circe supposedly lived, Circe straddles the line between the mortal and the divine, and she struggles with that line throughout her life as she learns to harness her gifts for witchcraft. These are gifts she doesn’t even know she has for many years because her family have made her feel so worthless, and when she finally comes into her own it’s so satisfying to watch, to watch her mistakes and her triumphs and how she must try to live with the consequences of both.
One thing I will say is that there is a scene of sexual assault in here. I think it’s really well-handled and it’s not explicit or gratuitous, but I thought I’d mention it just so anyone out there who might find that triggering knows to watch out for it.
Ultimately I adored Circe, just like I knew I would deep down, and it’ll stay with me for a long time. How long do I have to wait for Miller’s next novel?