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.
In mythology, Circe was somewhat of a bad-ass, able to morph people and gods into creatures representing their true nature. In The Odyssey, Odesseus' crew was turned into pigs. In this book, the tragic hero was father to her son, and the pigs were simply island companions.
Miller tries to make Circe more of a sympathetic figure than the myths would otherwise have you believe. The purpose of myths is to give stories that educate and hopefully influence people to behave to a societal norm. This story seems to nerf the impact of who Circe was and makes her less terrifying than the myth-makers had in mind. Circe wasn't the only one getting the softball treatment -- she is an attendant when her sister gives birth to the minotaur, and despite losing a few fingers to the beast while trying to accomplish a c-section, she nevertheless laments at the poor, misunderstood creature's fate.
Unlike Song of Achilles, there is no real story with any sort of plot. Circe is, she does stuff, people and gods suffer, but it's all a stream of consciousness coming from her. In the end, I wished there was something to actually be an end.
There are also some interesting meditations here on mortality and fate, both of which are often on my mind these days. The last page and a half was as moving as anything I've read in a long time.
Also in awe of the book's insane crossover power. Circe is for lovers of literary fiction and historical fiction, book clubs, scholars, your aunt, your teenager, your best friend. This was a great book to wind up a good reading year.
(There are some neat images of Circe on Miller's blog.)
As a mythology fan, there was no way I was going to be disappointed in Ms. Miller’s retelling of Circe’s famous story. However, in spite of the fact that I knew I was going to enjoy the story, I found myself utterly entranced at the world Ms. Miller created. She goes beyond the gods versus man situation. In fact, you quickly forget that Circe is a goddess given how realistic she is. Yes, she may never die and never face any sort of injury, yet her struggles are our struggles. She still faces the most brutal of crimes against women and must deal with the same shame and rage that millions of women endure every day after such attacks. She must prove herself in a world where women are minor, good for breeding and running a household. She faces abuse of every magnitude, isolation, doubt, and worst of all, indifference. She is so feared that her own father and uncle banish her to a deserted island for eternity. Her story is the blueprint for every strong woman who comes after her, just as the men who persecute her are for any man who has found a way to subjugate a woman in some fashion.
The success of Circe hinges on Ms. Miller’s ability to make commonplace beings and events that were not, something at which she succeeds. She makes the mythical normal, the magic commonplace, and the extraordinary mundane. This allows us to focus less on Circe’s eternal lifespan and more on her actions. I mentioned earlier that it is easy to forget she is a goddess, and this is a good thing for it allows you to become her, to experience her pain and humiliation, and celebrate her triumphs. In addition, Ms. Miller puts as much effort in establishing the backdrop as she does her characters so that you get an island that you can easily visualize, feel its breezes, smell the various scents, and hear the sounds the permeate the silence. The ocean becomes something to be feared and simultaneously pitied. Her mountains are soothing friends. Circe’s story is nothing without the nature aspect of it, which she uses to create her magic. Hence, the fact that nature takes on a life of its own and becomes something more than a backdrop against which the rest of the story unfolds fleshes out her story and makes it a three-dimensional one.
I knew I would enjoy it, but I tore through Circe faster than I expected. I did this not just because Circe is such a fascinating character nor solely because Ms. Miller does such a good job of bringing her to life. It is the amalgamation of everything which caused me to voraciously read this particular novel. It is the combination of Circe and her island and the writing and the gods and goddesses and heroes and monsters. It is the addition of magic and pain and power and sacrifice. It is inclusion of loss and love and fear and doubt and the human experience. That is what makes Circe such an impressive story.
I especially liked the ending to her story. It was satisfying on many levels and makes you say, "Ah, of course!"
Circe was a witch, exiled to the island by her father, Helios. She found she had a talent for using plants to create potions which combined with spells can transform objects and living things. Luckily she was on an island with a verdant environment with a great variety of plants, and time. She surrounded herself with tame lions and wolves and nymphs who were also escaping the hazards of living among the gods. Occasionally a ship would pull up on her shores and the sailors would be treated according to their behavior.
Miller expands greatly on Circe's story from her childhood to her life after Odysseus. She gives us a glimpse into the possible life of gods and demigods relative to the lives of us mere mortals. It seems they are just like us except that retribution and reward are much more epic when meted out.
The cover, btw, is in a reflective copper - absolutely gorgeous!
Read. This. Book.
Miller takes the mythological character of Circe, a witch who turns part of Odysseus's crew into wild animals and who has a relationship with him, as well as other appearances she makes in Greek mythology and creates a wonderfully complex character, who struggles to find a place she belongs in, while tying her into many traditional events. There's a lot that can be said about what Miller is doing and how she's subverting some traditions, while keeping utterly to the spirit of mythology, but basically I read the entire book in a state of uncritical joy.
"Life is not so simple as a loom. What you weave, you cannot unravel with a tug."
"He does not mean that it does not hurt. He does not mean that we are not frightened. Only that: we are here. This is what it means to swim in the tide, to walk the earth and feel it touch your feet. This is what it means to be alive."
Circe is the brilliant retelling of the Greek myth of Circe, daughter of the sun god Helios and the nymph Perse. Circe is a witch, a demigod who has been, in this telling, alienated and marginalized all her life -- set aside by parents, ridiculed by siblings, scoffed at by other gods, eventually exiled to an island to live out her days in isolation and despair. Not so easily is this heroin cast aside.
The language in this literary recreation is spare and lovely. Circe herself is a strong, admirable woman who gradually learns to stand up for herself and make choices based on self-interest, yes, but also on the basis of a clear moral compass. As her story unfolds, so does that of Greek mythology: the story of Odysseus who takes Circe as a lover and by whom she bears a son, the stories of the Minotaur and Scylla, Prometheus, Daedalus and Icarus, Achilles and Hector, and more. Had Greek mythology been told with this sense of story and pacing when I was in high school, I would have loved it. This is literature at its best: moving, engaging, humorous, and deeply human (yes, even when we are speaking of gods). The universality of the Greek stories emerges from every tale and Circe herself becomes a heroin to be revered and remembered. Heartily recommended.
I kept reading because I’d become invested in Circe and the things she cared about, and because the prose is so compelling. This is sharply written and unflinching about gods and mortals, but it is not as bitter as I expected. It’s a lot more hopeful -- it’s a story about freedom and transformation and life in a way I found surprising and deeply satisfying.
(It’s also a fascinating and complex portrayal of Odysseus as a man who is charismatic, heroic, wise and also deeply flawed. What is most fascinating is how the focus is not really on him -- he is not the protagonist or the hero of this tale -- but on the impact he has on others, and then, on the contrast between him and others.)
This is how mortals found fame, I thought. Through practice and diligence, tending their skills like gardens until they glowed beneath the sun. But gods are born of ichor and nectar, their excellences already bursting from their fingertips. So they find their fame by proving what they can mar: destroying cities, starting wars, breeding plagues and monsters. All that smoke and savour rising so delicately from our altars. It leaves only ash behind.
If you are a fan of Greek myths, this retelling of not only Homer's epic poem but also the lesser-known odes by Virgil and Ovid, will provide indelible portraits of these familiar immortals and humans: Athena, Hermes, Apollo, Scylla, Penelope, and Telemachus. Despite being scorned, diminished, underestimated, thwarted, and cheated, Circe seizes power with both introspection and great strength.
Miller's genius is in giving us insight into Circe's psyche. Once on the island, none of her actions are taken for pure revenge: there are always mitigating circumstances, including self defense and the protection of loved ones. Certainly the themes of women's lack of power, the silencing of their voices, and their devaluation are at the forefront. Initially antagonists, Circe and Penelope eventually form a bond that also demonstrates the power women can achieve when they join forces. But lest you are put off by the feminist slant, never fear: there are plenty of gods, monsters, and mayhem straight out of mythology, including Daedalus and Icarus, Scylla and Charybdis, Hermes, Apollo, Artemis, Athena, the Minotaur, and more.
Overall, this is an enchanted and enchanting novel, as beautifully written and vividly imagined as Miller's first , The Song of Apollo. I can hardly wait for her next venture into Greek mythology.
We meet Circe as a child in the halls of her Titan father. She never fits into his world of petty jealousy and swift anger. It's not until she's exiled to an island that she begins to figure out who she is. I loved the descriptions of the world where she lives. Whether she's digging in her garden or riding in her father's chariot above the earth, the descriptions bring each scene to life so vividly.
It’s a story of loneliness and longing. The beautiful language draws you in immediately. If you know any Greek mythology the characters will be familiar, but Miller gives them new depth. Just as she did in The Song of Achilles, she brings that ancient world alive and I couldn’t put it down.
BOTTOM LINE: Circe is such a wonderfully complex character. She is full of flaws and selfishness along side guilt and empathy. In this book there are no clear villains and heroes, just characters full of life and contradictions. I can’t wait to return to her world again one day.
“It is not fair,” I said. “It cannot be.”
“Those are two different things,” my grandmother said.
“In a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.”
“Within him was an ocean’s worth of grief, which could only be stoppered a moment, never emptied.”
“It is youth’s gift not to feel its debts.”
“Those who fight against prophecy only draw it more tightly around their throats.”
Probably the only thing that lets the novel down ever so slightly is the pacing. I felt that it slowed a bit in the middle and towards the end, but the writing is so good I didn't mind too much.
After Odysseus and his men land on Aiaia, he remains with Circe for several years despite the fate of his crew. I enjoyed this take on part of Odysseus’ famous journey and events that follow from it. I don’t want to say too much about the plot, but I really came to love both Circe and Odysseus’ wife, Penelope. Their growth, both individually and together, is another demonstration of the power of strong women. While this novel didn’t capture my emotions like Miller’s prize-winning debut, Song of Achilles, it’s still a great story, well told.
Ms. Miller has woven these tales and more into a compelling story about a woman who spends her eternal life pondering the differences between divinity and humanness. Despised by her own kind as a witch, Circe is exiled to an island where she spends her days brewing potions and taming animals. Her visitors are famous if you're familiar with Greek mythology, and their stories are retold here with fresh and interesting details.
The writing is lovely, filled with descriptive prose that evokes the Mediterranean. You can see the author knows her subject and her setting as she writes of the smells of fresh herbs or the taste of a meal served at Circe's table.
This is a great book whether you like mythology or not. It probably helps to be familiar with the Greek tales, but more importantly, Circe is about mortality and what it means to be human.