I adored Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles and I’ve been looking forward to reading Circe since its publication earlier this year.
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.
Breathing life into the ancient world, Madeline Miller weaves an intoxicating tale of gods and heroes, magic and monsters, survival and transformation.
From the very beginning of the novel, Circe is painted in a sympathetic light. Daughter of Helios, god of the sun, she is deemed plain by divine standards, and exhibits few of the powers often associated with the gods. Her mother and siblings think her stupid, and she is often mocked and / or ignored by those around her, and she becomes increasingly isolated and alone. When she dares to use witchcraft – a power frowned upon by the gods – for her own purposes, she is exiled to Aiaia, and there spends her time practising and honing her craft.
Told from Circe’s perspective, the reader gets to know her intimately, and while she is far from perfect, she is a likeable character with an incredible story to tell. Throughout the tale, Circe comes across as being surprisingly human, with only her years betraying her divine heritage. Dismissed by the gods, she seeks companionship from mortals, and, perhaps because of this, doesn’t have the capricious nature often associated with the Greek pantheon.
Despite her isolation, Circe becomes involved in many of the famous tales from Greek mythology. She attends the birth of the Minotaur (is indeed the midwife at its birth), and meets Jason and Medea as they escape with the Golden Fleece. They, and many others, all have some role to play in Circe’s story, yet they remain minor characters in the novel as the focus remains firmly on Circe. Even Odysseus, who features significantly in the latter part of the novel, is relegated to the side-lines as we see events from Circe’s perspective. I think that Circe is often viewed in a negative light for turning men into pigs (I’m not sure I see the problem here 😉) and for delaying Odysseus on his way home from the siege of Troy, but Miller presents her in another light, providing some rationale for her actions.
Like other recent adaptations of the Greek myths, Miller has taken a relatively minor character and given her the chance to come centre stage. Utilising a variety of sources and combining different elements of the myths associated with Circe, Miller has created one glorious and bewitching tale. I think that readers who have some familiarity with some of the mythology behind Circe may get more out of it, but I think that anyone looking for a magical tale of love and loss will find something to enjoy within its pages.
Circe is published by Bloomsbury, and is available in hardback and digital formats, with the paperback scheduled for release in April 2019.