Little, Brown and Company, 2018, 393 pages
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.
With unforgettably vivid characters, mesmerizing language and pause-resisting suspense, Circe is a triumph of storytelling, an intoxicating epic of family rivalry, palace intrigue, and love and loss as well as a celebration of indomitable female strength in a man's world.
One of my favorite movies as a child was the 1954 Kirk Douglas schlockfest Ulysses. It was a cheap Italian production that starred the same actress as Circe and Penelope.
Nothing about it has aged well, but as a kid, I found the climactic battle in Ithaca electrifying; Ulysses (Odysseus) comes home to Ithaca after losing his entire crew to gods, storms, and monsters, and slaughters all of his wife's would-be suitors. Of course I was already a fan of Greek mythology and knew the tale of Odysseus, and how he spent years lost at sea because the gods were dicking him around the whole time.
You could sum of most of Greek mythology that way: "The gods are dicks."
Thence we sailed on, grieved at heart, glad to have escaped death, though we had lost our dear comrades; and we came to the isle of Aeaea, where dwelt fair-tressed Circe, a dread goddess of human speech, own sister to Aeetes of baneful mind; and both are sprung from Helius, who gives light to mortals, and from Perse, their mother, whom Oceanus begot. Here we put in to shore with our ship in silence, into a harbor where ships may lie, and some god guided us. Then we disembarked, and lay there for two days and two nights, eating our hearts for weariness and sorrow.
In the Odyssey, Circe, the sorceress who turns men into animals, is just another obstacle for Odysseus to overcome on his long, tragic voyage. She's generally portrayed as a villain, and apparently turns wayward sailors into livestock for shits and giggles, 'cause that's what sorceresses do. (In fairness, she's also a goddess, and as we know, the gods are dicks.)
According to Homer, Circe turns Odysseus's crew into pigs, but Odysseus is warned by Hermes and given a magical herb that protects him from her magic. Then he threatens her with a sword, she begs for mercy, he makes her promise not to try any more shenanigans, and then they go fuck.
Madeline Miller's novel is a brilliant retelling of Circe's story, faithful in every detail to the Odyssey but filling in all the blanks about Circe's life, telling the part that Homer didn't about what came before and after Odysseus.
Circe is the daughter of Helios, the Titan sun god. The Titans have an uneasy truce with the Olympians, but Circe knows her father and her Titan uncles would like nothing more than to overthrow Zeus. Despite being the least powerful and least loved of Helios's children, she is still a goddess, so her lifespan is measured in centuries before she even meets her first mortal. When it turns out she and her brother possess the gift of sorcery — a power even the gods don't have — Zeus and Helios do some "negotiating" to avoid another war. Circe's brother is given an island kingdom, 'cause boys are allowed to be assholes and get rewarded for it. Circe, on the other hand, is banished to her own private (and uninhabited) island forever. Just because she, well, turned her mortal boyfriend into a god (Glaucus), and turned a rival nymph into a monster (Scylla). Her real sin was admitting it.
The gods think Circe's exile is a punishment, but it turns out that being away from her scheming, backstabbing, narcissistic family is a blessing. She goes about making a home for herself. She's very happy when the first lost sailors come by. She thinks mortals are cute and interesting, and surely they'll be grateful to this woman all by herself on an island who welcomes them into her home and gives them food and drink.
The gods are dicks, but so are men, and Circe quickly learns not to trust any of them. And that's how she becomes the sorceress known for turning visitors into pigs.
This book has been marketed as "#MeToo for the Age of Mythology" and of course it has been labeled a "feminist" retelling. I suppose it is, in that Circe is very much about a woman coming into her own power in a world where (even among the gods) women are rarely allowed any. By the end of the book she has faced down her asshole siblings, monsters both of her own making and not, Hermes (her sometimes-lover but never her friend), wily Odysseus, Big Daddy the sun god (who once literally burned her to a crisp and left her smoking on the floor of his palace to slowly, agonizingly heal back) and not least of all, Athena. Yes, Athena, who is actually my favorite Olympian, because she's usually the least dickish of them, but in this story she's Circe's adversary, though she kind of has reasons. She's not exactly a villain, but she's a reminder that none of the Olympians are "nice."
I may not be as big a dick as my father and my brothers, but I'm still kind of a bitch. Just ask Arachne and Medusa.
Circe was absolutely fantastic, and earns my highly recommended tag. For the Greek mythology nerd, it's perfect. Madeline Miller doesn't take any unwarranted liberties with the myths: everyone, even Circe's most obscure relatives, are authentic and true to what little is written about them in the original source material, but when she extrapolates a bit, such as by telling the story of Circe and Odysseus's son, and the arrival of Penelope and Telemachus to Circe's island after Odysseus's death, the entire sequence of events makes perfect sense and all the characters, even the ones Miller invented, are believable. From the earliest scenes with Circe's cunning, raging father Helios and her narcissistic mother, to Circe's battle of wills with Athena for the life of her son, to her confrontation with Scylla, the monster she created, and her reunions with her long-lost siblings (still dicks), and of course, wily (and dickish) Odysseus, everyone acted exactly like a character from Greek myth, told in lovely prose that was modern and yet brought the gods and heroes and Circe's sorcery to life like a grand epic fantasy. Madeline Miller's other novel, The Song of Achilles, instantly made it to my TBR list.
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