Circe by Madeline Miller
In her follow-up to her 2012 novel The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller revisits the world of Greek myths, this time with the witch-goddess Circe. Circe, the daughter of Helios, a Titan, and a water nymph, never feels at home in her father’s halls. She is mocked for her strange voice and lacks the beauty and power of her parents and siblings. Instead, she finds herself drawn to mortals and prefers them to the vain and petty gods around her. When her latent powers are made known, she is considered a threat by Zeus and is exiled to the island Aiaia. On the island, she begins to practice pharmakeia, witchcraft using herbs and other elements to create powerful spells. She is particularly adept at transfiguration.
Circe briefly leaves Aiaia when she is summoned to Crete by her sister, Pasiphae. While at Knossos, she meets her niece, Ariadne, the inventor Daedalus, and has a memorable encounter with the Minotaur. After returning to exile, Circe is more keenly aware of her loneliness than before and throws herself into working her magic. Despite her isolation, Circe does have the odd visitor. Sometime lover Hermes comes to tell tales of the outside world. Circe’s other niece, the witch Medea, seeks her out after fleeing her kingdom with Jason. Ships of men also find their way to her island and, at first, she welcomes their company. After a sailor’s brutal betrayal, Circe transforms him and his crew into pigs. Thereafter, most men who find her island meet the same fate. One day, as foretold by prophecy, Odysseus makes his way to Circe’s shores. If you know your mythology, you already know how the story plays out. However, in Miller’s hands, the story feels fresh and utterly compelling.
Circe is a complex and sympathetic heroine. Her struggles to find her voice and wield her power are both ancient and completely of the moment. Circe may be about a goddess, but it has a lot to say about being not only a woman, but a woman with power. A particularly potent theme throughout Circe’s story is how men fear powerful women and attempt to suppress them. Miller’s vivid, evocative writing brings the Greek gods and monsters to life in a unique and fantastic way. Readers who enjoy stories about women’s lives, and those who read literary, historical, and fantasy fiction will all find something worthwhile here.