Circe by Madeline Miller is her second novel, and is in a similar vein to her first book, The Song of Achilles, though quite different in plot and tone. Circe retells certain myths from the nymph Circe’s point of view, featuring various figures from ancient stories we know well. The plot traces the events of her life from infancy and through the next centuries, as she grows up in the company of her father Helios and often-cruel cousins. She discovers she can cast spells using special plants, but does so recklessly—which gets her exiled to the island of Aiaia. There, as she struggles to grasp at autonomy and strength, she meets many familiar faces: Daedalus, the Minotaur, Athena, Hermes, and of course Odysseus.
I mentioned in my review of Song of Achilles that Miller’s narrative voice is lovely and lyrical; it is the same here. She evokes the sound of the ancient Greek stories while adding her own spin. And I daresay her writing on a technical level is even better in this book than before. While Achilles suffered from random changes in tense, Circe is consistent. And for someone who is strangely attuned to such things, this was a relief.
Circe as a character is wonderful. She starts out downtrodden and timid, growing up told she is lesser somehow than all her peers. But when she is given a chance to be alone and get to know her powers, she undergoes a transformation into a stronger, bolder, more ruthless person. Her relationships with other characters teach her things about the lives of mortals and immortals. And as the plot progresses, watching her bloom and grow so confident is incredibly rewarding.
There are a couple of somewhat graphic scenes: two scenes involving difficult childbirth and one of sexual assault. They are pretty intense, but really aren’t much different than original Greek myths, which deal with the same subjects. The twist here is that Miller puts the women at the forefront, telling their stories with unflinching, unapologetic honesty. Circe and other women get to tell their stories, as they never could through the mouths of Homer, Ovid, and other men of old.
In the end, I relished Miller’s retelling of Circe’s life. She gives her a depth and complexity not afforded to her in the original sources, and the plot is engrossing. The other characters are awesome, especially Daedalus, Penelope, and Athena. This story moves you, surprises you, and delights you. It’s not quite as good as The Song of Achilles, for me, but still an excellent novel in its own right. In fact, I could go on talking about it for a long time, but that would probably become less incoherent the more enthusiastic I get, so I’ll stop while I’m ahead. I’ll end by saying if you like Greek mythology, The Song of Achilles, or intriguing fantasy worlds with strong women, you’ll like Circe.
Overall rating: 8.6/10
By pure coincidence, this is the second time I’ve followed a Markus Zusak book with a Madeline Miller book. Sadly, I know that won’t happen again when I reread I Am the Messenger soon, since I haven’t heard any news on a new novel from Miller. I can dream though.
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