Circe by Madeline Miller re-tells the life of the Greek Goddess Circe, making her into a much more sympathetic character.
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.
I really loved this book. Madeline Miller does a great job of completely changing our impression of Circe while staying fairly true to source materials and her involvements throughout different stories in mythology and epics from Ancient Greece (as much as anyone can stay true to stories that have varying accounts).
The gods really feel like gods in this book–they’re capricious and cruel because immortality allows for little entertainment. They treat humans as if they are ants. They believe in order for humans to keep worshiping them they must not let humans be too happy, lest they forget the gods in their comfort. The gods aren’t only cruel to humans, but also one another. Circe starts with the tales from the beginning since her father, a Titan called Helios, was one of those in power before a young upstart called Zeus overthrew them. The gods are always jockeying for power among each other, soaring to heights and falling low. They’re presented as mostly selfish beings. Circe seems alone in her feelings, more akin to a human’s empathy than a goddess.
On the one hand, I’m totally on board with Circe being different from the other gods. How else are we to relate to her, otherwise? On the other hand, it sometimes feels similar to the ‘not like other girls’ trope. However, sometimes Circe can be cruel as well–first by accident, meaning well but plans having gone awry, and later by choice once she’s been hurt and refuses to be hurt again. You see her struggle with her cruelty at times, and the guilt she feels still sets her aside from the others of her kind.
I think the relationships that Circe has with others is the most interesting thing about the book, which is quite something considering she spends a good portion of it exiled to an island, alone. Her relationship with her sister, for instance, is revealed to be more complex than first she thought. Circe is painted at first as naive, and later much of that has warn off, but even after having lived for a thousand years, having been punished by Zeus, older and more embittered, she still does retain some small spark of hope. Hope for a future where she can love and be loved in return without cruelty on either side.
I love books where you can really get inside the character’s head and feel along with them, all of the hurts and disappoints, the anger, the love, the hope…and Madeline Miller does such a great job with this. The pacing on this one is slow and steady but Miller keeps things interesting by moving us along through different phases of Circe’s tale. Pick this one up if you like Greek Mythology and/or slow-burn stories with rewarding ends. 5/5 stars.