Circe by Madeline Miller

What’s it about?

“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.”

What did I think?

The first thing I want to say is that I have absolutely no knowledge when it comes to the classics, mythology or anything in that realm. I am a complete novice and didn’t know anything other than the very rudimentary facts of The Odyssey. However, with this delightful book it doesn’t matter. Miller strikes the perfect balance between making her work accessible and easy to follow, without ever feeling like she is dumbing anything down for the reader. I came away from the book wanting to understand more but also feeling like I knew more as a result of reading it.

“You can teach a viper to eat from your hands, but you cannot take away how much it likes to bite.”

When retelling a story that is literally thousands of years old, there is, of course, a risk of struggling to make it relevant, of writing two-dimensional characters which we already know everything about. Madeline Miller has created such a vibrant and fascinating cast of characters in Circe. The title character is complicated, flawed, powerful, vulnerable and everything else in between. The Titans are a formidable but hideous force, the Olympians are a distant but ominous threat. Every creature, mortal and god we meet is pure fascination. The story of how Circe created the hideous monster, Scylla, brings new depth and meaning to what the beast represents. Circe’s attempts to find a partner in the halls of her father, turning the mortal Glaucos into a god, backfire as his new found power overcomes him, and he throws her by the wayside. There is character after character driving the plot forward and building upon the rich tapestry which Miller has created in this book. The greatest compliment I can give is that despite its enormous cast of characters, and my complete ignorance of the classics, I never struggled to keep track of who was who due to how invested I was in the story.

“What was I truly? In the end, I could not bear to know.”

Miller’s choice to tell the story from the perspective from an overlooked, dismissed woman gives the story such power. In this age of MeToo and women’s rights finally gaining just a portion of the attention they are due, the creative choice to have a female character, such as Circe, at the heart of such a story is so important. She is constantly demeaned and belittled by those who should be closest too her, she is punished for a crime that her brother’s also committed but get away with, she is abused and victimised by men through nearly her whole life but overcomes every single challenge and grows to be even stronger in the end. She isn’t a hero, she makes mistakes, does things she isn’t proud of but that adds to the power of such a character. I think to describe this book as a “Feminist Odyssey” is reductive but it is a powerful and important story told from a perspective that has been sorely missing.

“A happy man is too occupied with his life. But make him shiver…then you will hear from him.”

From a technical standpoint, the pacing of this story is masterful. Madeline Miller knows exactly when to take a pause, to take stock of how far Circe has come and when to allow the action to plunge us forward. It isn’t a short book but due to the fantastic pacing I never felt like it had dragged on or become tiresome. If anything, I would have hoped for a little more but that is just me being greedy. The writing is beautiful, with the description of the nature which becomes so important to Circe a highlight. When reading the book, I always felt like I was in a safe pair of hands guiding me through the mysterious, complicated world of The Odyssey.

To summarise, this is a stunning book. I would go as far as to say it is one of the finest books I have ever read. The story is wondrous, the characters vibrant and the message vital. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. If you are put off by the setting don’t be. It is written in such a way as anybody (even me) can understand and enjoy it. Go and get yourself a copy. 

11 thoughts on “Circe by Madeline Miller

  1. Good review of a book I thoroughly enjoyed too. There was a slew (is that a word?) of books retelling the Odyssey and the Iliad that came out round about the same time of which I’ve sure you’re aware but A Thousand Ships by Nathale Haynes and the Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood seem to have been overlooked. I recommend those two highly.

    Liked by 1 person

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