“When I was born, the word for what I was did not exist.”
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.
WOW. Just WOW. I finished reading Circe earlier today and I was just taken aback by how much I loved and relished in this story. This is everything I never knew I needed. While it had all the things I usually enjoy or find compelling: romance, tragedy, dysfunctional families and the list could go on and on, the major draw here was Circe herself. The eponymous protagonist, was incredibly written and developed over the course of this book. I loved that this was very much her story.
When I say this book takes you on a journey, I mean it. We meet Circe as a young goddess who is struggling to find her place amongst her more beloved siblings: Pasiphaë, Perses and Aeëtes. All three of them exhibit the glorious and otherworldly qualities of their kind, whereas Circe has always been deemed an outsider by her father, Helios the God of the Sun and her Nymph mother, Perse as well as their countless relatives. It was so painful to read the way everyone treats Circe with contempt and how lonely she is for such a long time. I found her vulnerability, compassion and desire for love so relatable, she trusts so wholeheartedly and isn’t hardened to the world, I saw something of myself in her, or at least the way I used to feel and this element of her character resonated with me so personally.
“You have always been the worst of my children,” he said. “Be sure to not dishonour me.”
“I have a better idea. I will do as I please, and when you count your children, leave me out.”
Her life is much the same, until one day she gains unexpected freedom from a magical but terrible turn of events. Finding herself in exile, Circe develops her craft and finds joy and peace in the mystical and lush island of Aiaia, which is abundant in plant life and wildlife. The description of the island is absolutely stunning, it’s basically like paradise on earth. Miller is so skilful in depicting the passage of time, both of the Island and it’s creatures and how Circe comes to terms with her own immortality. Imagine an existence where you never age whilst everyone around you, those who you love inevitably die and pass on to an afterlife, somewhere immortals cannot follow. It was these quiet moments that kept reaffirming my belief that Circe was truly something special.
“I thought once that gods are the opposite of death, but I see now they are more dead than anything, for they are unchanging, and can hold nothing in their hands.”
“But of course I could not die. I would live on, through each scalding moment to the next. This is the grief that makes our kind choose to be stones and trees rather than flesh.”
Through her time on the island she meets countless mortals and a few famous faces; Hermes, Athena, Odysseus, Medea, Jason and Daedalus to name a few. I loved the interweaving of other mythological figures and stories and how Circe played such instrumental roles in so many of them. For instance, Theseus and the Minotaur is a tale that many will be familiar with, however I never knew the backstory regarding his parentage and how the Minotaur came to be. Reading how Circe was involved in the creatures entrapment was so cool. It was also really satisfying to see the references to Achilles and Patroclus which are sprinkled in, since I recently finished reading The Song of Achilles *find my review here* . I’m a HUGE sucker for inter-textual references, like it brings me far too much joy for it to be considered normal haha. I’m a major fan of these myths so it was incredible to see them coming to life once more and this is largely due to Millers ability to take these classic tales and revitalise them.
“Odysseus, son of Laertes, the great traveller, prince of wiles and tricks and a thousand ways. He showed me his scars, and in return he let me pretend that I had none.”
“I would say, some people are like constellations that only touch the earth for a season.”
On the whole, this is the story of Circe and her personal journey to both find herself and her place in the wider world. This progression is realised in a truly beautiful and complex way. Through the course of the novel Circe does some morally reprehensible things yet she is so utterly human and I really empathised with her. The characterisation here is spot on and never feels forced or unrealistic, we understand her motivations, her grievances and her choices. I grew to genuinely care about her and was rooting for her to find her peace. The only thing I’ll mention about the ending is that it felt so natural and it just made so much sense. I won’t spoil anything but just know it was poignant and befitting this extraordinary character.
Overall, I really loved this book (as you can probably tell by this raving review) and want to shout its praises from the rooftops. It deserves all the hype and the praise it has already received and will go on to get. Madeline Miller is definitely one of my favourite writers and I cannot wait to see what she will write next. If Circe is anything to go by, it will be truly unforgettable.
★★★★★ – 5 Star rating
Have you read Circe? If so, what did you think? Are you a fan of retellings of older stories? Would love to chat in the comments!
Until next time,