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.
Circe is the newest novel by Madeline Miller, published on April 10 of this year. Though not a sequel, this is her second novel exploring the world of Ancient Greek mythology following her first novel The Song of Achilles, which I have yet to have the pleasure of reading myself. I have heard many great things about that book, but being a greater fan of The Odyssey than The Iliad I jumped at the chance to read an in-depth tale about Circe, the alluring goddess and sorceress of Aiaia.
Some of my most favourite parts of this novel actually take place in the beginning. Circe herself serves as narrator, telling the story of her life starting with her birth, fathered by the Sun god Helios and the sea nymph Perse. The early stages of her life paint a picture of the lives of certain gods in a way that I hadn’t seen before while remaining eminently faithful to the mythology. While she lives in the obsidian halls of her father, much of her time is spent among other lesser Titans (pre-Olympian gods) and the countless nymphs that populate Greek mythology in the halls of Oceanos. Immortals are depicted living lavish, vain lives together with few concerns that are not petty. They frequently jeer each other cruelly in a way that I had not seen before.
Circe is stifled and miserable during this time, seen as unremarkable and an irritating presence by her family and peers. She briefly connects with her younger brother Aeëtes as someone to care for, as well as a mortal named Glaucos whom she befriends, but each case is fleeting and ends with her let down by the nature of most gods. I really liked these portions of the book because they give the reader a candid look at these lesser divinities, and in turn the nature of all the gods, without sacrificing what sets them apart from mortals. We get a much closer look at their “daily” lives, but they’re still starkly faithful to the gods of the old myths, demanding the respect they feel owed, seeing most mortals as little more than playthings or pawns, and carrying out their existence without much worry or care thanks to harm being temporary and time meaning nothing.
For her part, Circe has little in common with the other gods, having a more caring nature thanks to centuries of neglect from her fellow gods, especially her family. She sympathizes with the plights of mortals, yet is kept at arms-reach from the ones she comes to know and love by being divine herself. I really enjoyed her emotional journey, especially her emergence into her own powers, unique only to her and her siblings. She is very meek early on in the book, and while she is still possessed of emotional baggage throughout the story as a result of that period in her life she really comes into her own as a powerful and brilliant figure thanks to her talent as a witch.
She often gets caught up in other famous myths in peripheral ways, such as the Minotaur or Jason and the Argonauts, which are alterations to the myths but orchestrated in a way that it works really well within the mythography. Pasiphaë, who gives birth to the Minotaur, is her sister and her younger brother Aeëtes is the father of Medea, the witch who aids Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece. I’m not aware of any myths where these characters actually meet, but them all being family is not Miller’s invention, so it was great to see them all interacting in these ways.
This is a story about the progression of Circe’s life to a specific, crucial point, and the plot operates in more clear phases rather than a more seamless narrative, such as her initial years at Aiaia or Odysseus’s time spent there much later. This makes sense when dealing with an ageless being such as she is, but it also left the novel feeling episodic in a way that I have mixed feelings about. After a while the constant ebb and flow of relative peace and disruption became a little tiring without an endpoint that I could sense the story building toward. I’m not disappointed with the way things ultimately turned out, but not having a clear idea in the later stages made me a little impatient with it.
A nitpick I have with the story, for all its faithfulness to Greek mythology, is the exclusion of the goddess Hecate. Through Circe and her siblings sorcery, or herb craft, is seen as a new force emerging into the world. This is of course then completely ignoring the goddess of witchcraft herself, who is given no mention at all. I’m not saying I know somewhere Miller could/should have inserted the character in to satisfy my fussiness, but I do wish Hecate had been integrated in some way rather than seemingly written out entirely.
My slight problems aside, Circe is a fantastic book that expertly adapts iconic figures from Greek mythology into prose full of emotion and strong characterization, telling the life story of a powerful woman in a world that is severely unkind to most women, be they goddess or mortal. While it has certainly satisfied me as a fan of classical mythology, prior experience with that material is not necessary for the average reader, nor is reading her first novel The Song of Achilles. I’m sure they take place in the same narrative world, but they are more sibling novels, not a part of a series. It’s not perfect, but I cannot recommend it enough.
My rating: 4 out of 5
Featured image is “Circe” by Wright Barker (1889)