Title: Circe (2018)
Author: Madeline Miller
Release Date: 19th April 2018
Read: 4th – 13th March 2018
Genre: fantasy; mythology; retelling
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
“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.” (Synopsis from the publisher)
“Every moment mortals died, by shipwreck and sword, by wild beasts and wild men, by illness, neglect and age. It was their fate, as Prometheus had told me, the story that they all shared. No matter how vivid they were in life, no matter how brilliant, no matter the wonders they made, they came to dust and smoke. Meanwhile every petty and useless god would go on sucking down the bright air until the stars went dark.”
Circe tells the story of the eponymous goddess of witchcraft, nymph, witch, or enchantress, depending on your source material, daughter of the sun god Helios and the nymph Perse. Skilful with herbs and potions, Circe’s magic is rooted in this knowledge, and she finds herself weaving spells to protect herself as well as to wreak revenge on those who have wronged her. Drawing on classical sources such as Virgil and Ovid, Madeline Miller deftly weaves the various interpretations of Circe’s character in an effort to reclaim the goddess’ story and let her tell it from her own mouth in her own words.
” ‘Will you tell me, what is a mortal like?’ It was a child’s question, but he nodded gravely.
‘There is no single answer. They are each different. The only thing they share is death. You know the word?’
‘I know it,’ I said. ‘But I do not understand.’
‘No god can. Their bodies crumble and pass into earth. Their souls turn to cold smoke and fly to the underworld. There they eat nothing and drink nothing and feel no warmth. Everything they reach for slips from their grasp.’ “
What I was most pleasantly surprised with was Madeline Miller’s willingness to portray the vanity, selfishness, maliciousness, and downright cruelty of the gods – to allow them to be the “bad guys” and painted vividly with all their flaws intact. Although they might place themselves, and each other, on very high pedestals and considering themselves above the rules of us mere mortals, Circe worked well to expose the many, many hypocrises of the famous gods of the Greek pantheon. It allowed the gods to be both charming and cruel, even to their own kin. I was shocked and appalled by some of the disgusting behaviour of the exalted gods and heroes of Greek mythology and even though I was dimly aware of the stories, I had never quite considered them in a serious light and stopped to consider what they were saying about the arrogance with which the likes of Athena or Ares could act, especially considering the power they had over the mortals who worshipped and feared them in equal measure.
“I remembered how my father had once told me that on earth there were men called astronomers whose task it was to keep track of his rising and setting. They were held in highest esteem among mortals, kept in palaces as counselors of kings, but sometimes my father lingered over one thing or another, and threw their calculations into despair. Then those astronomers were hauled before the kings they served and killed as frauds. My father had smiled when he told me. It was what they deserved, he said. Helios the Sun was bound to no will but his own, and none might say what he would do.”
Intriguingly, the novel also focused on those figures who might not necessarily be the main characters in your typical Greek myth retelling – for example, Zeus is not the main god but rather Helios, we spend more time with Hermes, Daedalus, and Odysseus than we do with Achilles or Hercules. I had never previously had an opinion about Hermes, for example, aside from picturing him as he is the 1997 animated Disney film, a far cry from how he is portrayed in this novel – Hermes seemed charming but oh so dangerous, all too self-aware of the enchanting effect he could have on others and using it to his own advantage and for his own ulterior motives. I could completely understand how a person would be sucked in by his personable character and I hated myself for it, thereby proving how successful the author was at building his characterisation.
“I had grown up hearing the stories of Hermes’ daring: how as an infant he had risen from his cradle and made off with Apollo’s cattle, how he had slain the monstrous guardian Argos after coaxing each of his thousand eyes to sleep, how he could prise secrets out of a stone and charm even rival gods to do his will. It was all of it true. He could draw you in as if he were winding up a thread. He could spin you out upon a conceit until you were choking with laughter. […] He made you want to spill your secrets.”
Perhaps one of my favourite sections of the novel was in Crete and Circe’s dynamic with the inventor Daedalus as he found himself subject to, not the will of King Minos but rather that of the King’s wife, Pasiphaë, Circe’s sister. Forced to construct a wooden device inside which Pasiphaë might hide (and in which she is then famously impregnated by the Cretan bull, Greek mythology is wild), Daedalus is then wracked with guilt over the abomination that occurs when he is compelled to not only help deliver the minotaur child successfully (with Circe’s aid) but also to construct a labyrinth in which the child may be contained. It was a story with which I was familiar but Madeline Miller’s take on it helped to add a level of humanity which cut through the ridiculous level of suspension of disbelief required and brought the storyline down to emotions and concepts that were both understandable and relatable – the love, and responsibility, we feel for our children.
“I could not stop hearing Daedalus talking of his freedom. There had been such yearning in his voice, and bitterness too. At least I had earned my exile, but Daedalus was innocent, kept only as a trophy for my sister and Minos’ vanity.“
There was one principal thing that, unfortunately, kept me from enjoying Circe enough to give it 5 out of 5 stars – this book’s pacing was extremely odd. I would feel like I’d read chapters upon chapters but when I checked I’d actually only advanced 2 or 3% – it was very jarring and off-putting and meant I felt like I was moving through this story at a glacial pace. In some ways, I wonder if this was intentional. After all, if Circe is immortal then what we, as mere mortals, would consider “a lifetime” actually only feels like a day to her, so I don’t know whether this unusual pacing was purposeful on the part of Madeline Miller in order to try to replicate that sense of time passing as a lifetime’s worth of events could happen to Circe and actually only represent 2% of “her story”. However, intentional or not, the pacing still kept jarring me out of the story and disrupted the overall flow of the narrative, thereby preventing me from entirely investing in Circe’s life.
“My sister was born, and my brother soon after that. I cannot say how long it was exact. Divine days fall like water from a cataract, and I had not learned yet the mortal trick of counting them.“
Ultimately, however, Circe well and truly succeeded in reminding me of my fondness for all things Greek mythology – each of the references to various mythological figures and epic adventures helped to renew this once-great love, as Madeline Miller’s passion for mythology, as well as her willingness to play around with its infamous characters, shines through this novel in spades. If you like your mythological retellings seemingly fantastical but exploring extremely relevant and relatable concepts then Circe is most certainly one to watch out for.
“Not everything may be foreseen. Most gods and mortals have lives that are tied to nothing; they tangle and wend now here, now there, according to no set plan. But then there are those who wear their destinies like nooses, whose lives run straight as planks, however they try to twist. It is these that the prophets may see.”
Thank you to Bloomsbury for kindly providing me with an eARC of the book via NetGalley – I greatly appreciate the opportunity to read and review titles prior to their release, but this does not affect my overall opinion or review of the book itself.
Please note: the quotes above were taken from the eARC copy of the novel – this may be subject to change and differ from the published text of the novel.