Okay y'all, I finally jumped on the Madeline Miller train and read Circe!
It reminded me a lot of The Witch's Heart (you can find my review here), as it's about a divine being with witchy powers who is forced to live in isolation. However, I liked Circe's character and story a bit more. Keep reading to find out why!
Genre: Fantasy / Mythology Retelling
Category: Cozy Read
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RATING: 4/5 Stars
Plot: 3/5 stars
Characters: 4/5 stars
World: 5/5 stars
While Circe features powerful gods and witches, it is very much about humanity and belonging. It's also about how women are viewed and treated differently than men, and how they're treated by men.
Circe is the eldest child born to the sun god Helios and the Oceanid Perse. Throughout her life, she is ridiculed by the other divinities for being ugly and powerless. Yet when she acts like them—using power to get what she wants—it backfires. The gods become wary of her power and declare that she must be exiled so she may not harm anyone.
Because Circe is restricted to Aiaia, there isn't a lot going on; there’s no real discernible plot with tension and a climax. Luckily, there are brief periods when Circe is able to get off her island, and she gets many visitors, which keeps the story from being boring.
Most of the characters, especially the gods, are hateful, power-hungry asshats. Circe's sister, Pasiphae, is particularly vile. But there were some good eggs, too, whose complexities and relationships I appreciated.
Circe is different from her godly relatives—she isn’t vain, mindless, or nasty like many of the nymphs; she craves love more than power or dominance; and she's intrigued by mortals rather than disgusted by them. Between that and her lack of beauty, she never quite fits in and suffers constant ridicule from the other gods. So it’s no wonder she saw exile as a form of liberation, a chance to be herself and grow.
Eventually, she strikes back when she is wronged, fights for her desires, defies the gods—and when she is tired of being controlled, she calls upon the gods to let them know what's up. I admire how she sacrificed and took her life into her own hands.
Every moment of my peace was a lie, for it came only at the gods' pleasure.
As for the side characters...
I adore Daedalus; he's my favorite. I like how Miller twisted his and Circe's stories together, and I wish they could have had more time together. Though I knew his story had a sad ending, it didn't keep me from wishing him a happier life. He didn’t deserve all that happened to him.
Odysseus is an interesting character. I wish I'd read Song of Achilles first so I would have known him better before his introduction in Circe (I didn't realize this would be a connected follow-up to Miller's debut). I enjoyed his wisdom and wit, but he definitely has a dark side.
I found Penelope’s character and dynamic with Circe to be cool—she's a schemer like her husband, but she and Circe grow to respect each other. I like that they're able to speak to each other so openly, relate to one another on some levels, and that Circe is willing to help and share her power with Penelope.
Their sons, Telemachus and Telegonus, are good men, and I like that they have such a good relationship. Though she had Telegonus to ease her loneliness, I like that Circe was able let her son go out into the world and choose his own path. I have mixed feelings about her relationship with Telemachus, but I won't go into detail so nothing is spoiled.
But in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth.
The story starts off in the realm(s) of the gods, showing the halls of Helios and Oceanus. We also see Crete and Ithaca, different islands, and the deepest depths of the ocean. The settings are vivid and so much fun to imagine, especially the halls of the gods.
But what I really like about this world is the magic.
Let me say what sorcery is not: it is not divine power, which comes with a thought and a blink. It must be made and worked, planned and searched out, dug up, dried, chopped and ground, cooked, spoken over, and sung. Even after all that, it can fail, as gods do not. If my herbs are not fresh enough, if my attention falters, if my will is weak, the draughts go stale and rancid in my hands.
Little by little I began to listen better: to the sap moving in the plants, to the blood in my veins. I learned to understand my own intention, to prune and to add, to feel where the power gathered and speak the right words to draw it to its height. That was the moment I lived for, when it all came clear at last and the spell could sing with its pure note, for me and me alone.
Witchcraft is nothing but such drudgery. [...] Day upon patient day, you must throw out your errors and begin again. So why did I not mind? [...] I learned that I could bend the world to my will, as a bow is bent for an arrow. I would have done that toil a thousand times to keep such power in my hands.
I had no altar, but I did not need one: anywhere I was became my temple.
Okay, sorry about all the quotes, but they are so good and give you a feel for Circe's relationship to magic. I love that her powers were a mystery to her, that she had to learn and work at them. She was exiled because the gods were afraid of her power, yet this gave her nothing but time to focus on discovering herself and honing her skills. Still, it’s a prison sentence with drawbacks.
A golden cage is still a cage.
Circe by Madeline Miller is a beautiful tapestry of popular and lesser-known Greek myths that's true to their origins, colored with Miller's own imagining of events, and speaks to things like power, belonging, and humanity. The characters and settings are vivid, and I love the magic.
TRIGGER WARNING: Readers should be aware there is one scene in which a character is raped, though it is not very long or graphic.
Otherwise, I would highly recommend this book to fans of mythology and historical fiction. It may not be plot-heavy, but it is certainly a good read that will play on your emotions.