I had high hopes for Circe after enjoying The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller so much and I’m pleased to report that this book didn’t disappoint. Circe is our main character and our narrator. She is a daughter of Titans, daughter of Helios, the sun god, surrounded by power but largely powerless herself. She grows up lonely and timid in the halls of her father, with the cruelty and omnipotence of the gods on full display, knowing she is at their every whim. When Circe and her brothers and sister are revealed to be more powerful than anyone initially assumed, Circe is banished to her own island. There she learns more about her own powers and begins to form her own unending future.
Circe is probably best known for her part in Odysseus’s story. When Odysseus and his men land on her island on their long way home, Circe turns the men into pigs but takes Odysseus as a lover. While this is certainly an important part of Circe, Miller’s interest is more focused on Circe as an individual, not simply as she relates to the men around here. Is this a feminist re-telling? Yes, but I think to define it only as such is to diminish what Miller does in this work.
This is a story about mortality, about power and authority. Circe is an immortal being but cut off from all other gods, visited only occasionally by gods and humans, mostly out of her own control. She is powerful and weak at the same time. Hers is a power that requires harnessing and practice. From a young age, she is sympathetic towards humans, even before she meets one. There is a telling scene early on in the book where Circe meets Prometheus, about to be punished for giving fire to humans, and this forms a core part of her character.
This is a story about what we can control, what we cannot, and learning to accept the difference. The ending is gorgeous – tragic and hopeful at the same time and capturing something so real about what it is to be human. There’s a lot I could say about this novel but I also don’t want to give anything away. From the few check-ins I did with wikipedia while reading, it seemed that Miller kept fairly close to the original myths and stories while still adding quite a bit and fleshing Circe out to feel so believable. Highly recommended.