Author: Madeline Miller
Genre: Fantasy, Retelling
Circe is the daughter of Helios, Titan and god of the sun, but she doesn’t look nor sound like a divinity herself. Not like her brother and sister, with their beautiful golden eyes and their pettiness; and certainly not like her younger brother, whom she loves dearly, and is the brightest of them all.
Scorned by her kin, she seeks solace in the company of mortals, fascinated by their ability to find happiness despite all the hardship of their lives. When she casts a spell out of love, she incurs in the wrath of Zeus and is finally exiled. Alone on the island of Aiaia, with a palace that doesn’t need any tending and her pantry always brimming with food, Circe spends her time studying and improving the ability that caused her exile: witchcraft. While her craft and strength grow, many pass through her island and bring her news of the outside world: the god Hermes, but also sailors, heroes, soldiers and craftsman, and then, one day, Odysseus himself, whose brilliant plan caused the fall of the great city of Troy and the end of a long war.
But her actions draw the wrath of men and gods alike, and Circe will have to be more clever, and braver, and stronger than any of them in order to survive and protect what’s most important to her.
A closer look
I have read the Odyssey some ten years ago during a course about travel in literature – and I mean, is there a more iconic story than the the story of Odysseus?
I can’t say I hold a lot of memories of the story itself and all its episodes, but I remember really enjoying it, and most of all I remember how it surprised me. Who knew classics could be interesting? Not me, that was for sure.
Fast forward a few years, and I read the Iliad as well. And, after that, a book that was gaining a lot of popularity, something by the name of The Song of Achilles. Curious and confident that I already knew the story and nothing could really surprise me, I picked it up. And it broke me.
Forward another couple of years, and Circe was out. I bought the book and then looked at it for about two years before gathering the courage to pick it up. If the first book by this author had me sobbing for the last third, what would this feminist retelling of Circe’s story do? Well, it did a lot of things, but somehow crying was not one of those.
Circe is best known for being the witch who transformed all men that came to her island into swine. She makes an appearance in the Odyssey, where of course Odysseus is the only one who manages to not get turned into a pig and somehow ends up in her bed. By the way, I don’t think that’s a spoiler since it’s fairly common knowledge, but don’t worry: this book is so much more than that.
We begin following Circe when she’s just a young girl, walking her father’s halls and living a life with no apparent purpose, aside from divine gossip. She’s naive, and she tends to trust everyone, always believing the best about every person she meets. That’s the best part of her, and also the cause of her downfall. It’s sad but somehow satisfying to see her grow out of it, and being cautious even when her instinct says otherwise.
Her arc is wonderfully executed. Every event in Circe’s life, every character she meets, has an impact on her and propels her forward, until she grows from a scared young girl to a powerful and confident witch. And it’s not an easy journey; she has a lot of drawbacks, and she makes mistakes, but she learns from every situation and every time a problem presents itself she’s a little more equipped for it.
Mythological characters and stories are woven almost seamlessly into her story, so much that despite her being in exile for most of the story, the book never becomes dull or boring. Something is always happening, either on the island or in Circe’s inner mind. I remembered Madeline Miller’s writing to be incredible in her previous book, and this one didn’t disappoint. Her style manages to be immersive and beautiful.
I think the author did an especially good job with the characters. Given that she’s taking them from a mythology that’s more than well established, it would be easy to fall into the trap of ascribing each of them to a basic set of characteristics: the proud and clever hero, the obedient wife, the arrogant god. Instead, each and everyone of them has depth, and they show different sides of themselves throughout the story. Even Odysseus managed to surprise me, and I mean, he’s so well known that I didn’t think anyone could really do something new with him.
What I believe this book missed, compared to The Song of Achilles, is some emotional tension. Circe faces so much hardship that a tone of tragedy permeates the novel from start to finish. Anytime something was going on, I didn’t feel the thrill of suspense as I discovered if Circe would get her way or not; I already expected her to fail in some ways at every turn, and that kind of hardened me against feeling deeply when she eventually did fail. I realised that even by the end, when everything is supposedly fine, I couldn’t feel any relief because I keep expecting something bad to happen. Which is absolutely crazy, and if it was intentional, I can only applaud it. If it wasn’t, well, it’s still impressive I guess.
So to wrap this up: I really, really, really enjoyed this book. I loved it is some ways, but not as much as I wish I did. I will still reread it at some point, and hopefully my opinion will stay the same – or get better, who can tell. I feel like you could enjoy it just for the feminist vibes, but having some knowledge of Greek mythology would definitely help you to appreciate all the stories and people mentioned.
About the author
Madeline Miller is the author of The Song of Achilles, which, as I mentioned somewhere above, emotionally destroyed me. I won’t really waste time with a proper synopsis here: it’s the story of Achilles and Patroclus, and the Trojan war. If you really have no idea what that all is about, well, you should definitely look it up before you pick up the book. (If long, epic stories written in poetry are not your thing, I wouldn’t recommend reading the Iliad itself. Unless you’re ready to read pages and pages and pages of verse describing all the people that came to the war, and with what ship, and how many men, and who where their fathers/grandfathers, and so on. Seriously, that part was devastatingly boring.)
She’s currently working on a retelling of The Tempest by William Shakespeare, which means that one: I have something to wait for, and two: I need to read The Tempest before that.