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Circe Hardcover – April 10, 2018
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The Amazon Book Review
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An Amazon Best Book of April 2018: Though revisiting classical myths, Madeline Miller’s bold, poetic new novel, told in the voice of Circe (Odysseus’s lover, famous for turning his sailors into swine), is very much on-trend, with an immortal protagonist and a feminist slant that will make #MeToo-ers cheer. Miller reimagines the story of Circe, “daughter of the sun,” and reinvents her, changing Homer’s ruthless seductress into a woman with a restricted set of godly powers, a keen intelligence, and most important, empathy for humans – a sentiment not shared by her godly relatives. When Circe’s father banishes her to the island of Aiaia, her isolation from her scornful family comes as a gift, and her solitude grants her time to learn the art of witchcraft – the only work she has ever undertaken. “For a hundred generations, I had walked the world, drowsy and dull, idle and at my ease,” she says. “Then 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.” She summons her skills when a boatload of would-be rapists lands on her shores, but shows Odysseus mercy, and their encounter changes her forever. Back in 2012, Miller’s novel The Song of Achilles earned the Orange Prize for Fiction. For her many admirers, Circe is certainly worth the wait. —Sarah Harrison Smith, Amazon Book Review
From School Library Journal
Circe, daughter of the sun god Helios, mightiest of the Titans, was a peculiar child who had few of the gifts the demigods enjoyed, and she was despised by her parents and numerous sisters for her deficits. What she lacked in godlike ability, though, she compensated for with a gift for herbology and witchcraft. When she is rejected by her first love, the mortal Glaucos—who pines instead for the beautiful nymph Scylla—Circe casts a spell that turns Scylla into a hideous sea creature. For her transgression, Circe is banished by Zeus to an island, where she survives alone until Odysseus, "son of Laertes, the great traveler, prince of wiles and tricks," lands upon her shores and is seduced by her. Drawing on the mythology of the classical world, Miller deftly weaves episodes of war, treachery, monsters, gods, demigods, heroes, and mortals into her second novel of the ancient world (after the Orange Prize—winning The Song of Achilles). Prometheus and Medea are among those who also make an appearance here. VERDICT This absorbing and atmospheric read will appeal to lovers of Greek mythology.—Jane Henriksen Baird, formerly at Anchorage Public Library, AK
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I know it may be odd to talk about “spoilers” when this is the story of a mythological character, but there are reasons for that and I will explain in the review.
This book is told from the point of view of Circe, daughter of the sun Titan Helios. Her mother was Perse, a sea nymph who was the granddaughter of the Titan Oceanos.
We mainly know of Circe from the Odyssey and her interactions with Odysseus. She was known as a sorceress who lived on an island and turned men into pigs. We know from the Odyssey that Circe was often seen working at a huge loom surrounded by dangerous animals such as wolves and lions, yet they were all under her control. We also know from the Odyssey that Odysseus - by virtue of his wiles - not only avoids Circe’s sorcery but beds her as well. When he leaves she gives him advice on how to survive the perils on his seaward journey home to his homeland of Ithaca, such as Scylla and Charybdis, so he can reunite with his beloved wife Penelope and son Telemachus.
So why did I like this book so much? Well, stand back, because I’m about to gush.
I am a big fan of Greek mythology, and I was a big fan of this author’s previous book, The Song of Achilles. Yet this one was even better.
Circe was not a major figure in the Odyssey; in fact when I first opened the book I realized I got her mixed up with Calypso. But I won’t make that mistake anymore. This minor character has now become my favorite character of all thanks to this author’s brilliant work.
Because this book is told from Circe’s point of view, we get to intimately know her - not just her history and story but her thoughts as well. The reason this is so important is because we come to empathize with Circe. We tend to think of the Greek Gods as so fickle and often cruel - and indeed they are often depicted that way - yet with Circe, we meet a goddess who is so human and so very, very likable.
The reason I made the “no spoilers” comment at the start, is because Circe’s experiences include her meeting and interacting with various other figures from Greek myth, and it’s a big part of the enjoyment of this novel to experience it the way the author intended, without knowing what is going to happen next.
I took a few days to read this book but that was not because it was a slow read. Just the opposite; I was so happy while reading it that I would stop myself after each chapter just to pace myself so it wouldn’t end too soon.
I highly (obviously) recommend this to any fans of Greek mythology and for sure to anyone who enjoyed The Song of Achilles. But you don’t have to know much about the Odyssey or Greek mythology to love this book. Although this novel is about a god, it’s really a story about what it means to be human.
Author Madeline Miller, who is an actual classics scholar, fills out Circe's life to make her more real, with feelings, motivations, life experiences that made her into that witch who was so inhospitable to sailors. Matter of fact, Miller's Circe, if she were around today, might well be a prominent figure in the #MeToo movement. After all, if some men are going to behave like pigs, imagine the satisfaction of turning them into the real thing.
We are first introduced to Circe, a very minor Greek goddess who tells her story in 1st person POV, as a young girl, daughter of Helios, Titan god of the sun and Perse, an Oceanid naiad. For being god of the sun, Helios is a pretty cold and distant father, and Perse is a particularly unkind mother who favors her other children over Circe. And those other children, in particular the twins Pasiphae and Perses, are cruel to Circe.
So is it any wonder that Circe, although a goddess, is drawn to the company of mortals? Her first romantic crush is the fisherman Glaucos, who is friendly to her. She falls so in love with him that she begs her father, and then her grandmother, to make him a god so they can live together forever. No luck there, so Circe, ever determined, turns to witchcraft and does it herself. Well, that doesn't turn out as well as she would have liked, since Glaucos becomes a rather full-of-himself god who falls in love with a much lovelier nymph than Circe. Unlucky in love and resentful of the other nymph, Circe again turns to witchcraft, this time to take her revenge on this Other Woman. What happens next is Miller's take on how a very well-known and particularly vicious sea monster came into existence.
Well, "pharmaka", or witchcraft, is frowned upon by Zeus, so he has Helios exile Circe to the island of Aiaia, to live a solitary life. And it is here that Circe begins to fully develop her skills with herbs and plants and her abilities to cast spells. We all know how that impacted a portion of Homer's The Odyssey. What I didn't think about when reading that classic is the why of her actions. That's what Miller is interested in and that's what makes this a compelling read. The author creates a fully-fleshed-out Circe. We see how her life experiences have informed her character. Part of this includes her love life, with three mortal lovers and one god who becomes an untrustworthy friend with benefits.
As we read Circe's account of her life, we find her meeting up with many famous mythological characters. There are encounters with Prometheus, Daedalus and Icarus, Hermes, Minos and Pasiphae, the Minotaur, Jason and Medea, Athena, Penelope and Telemachus, and various and sundry other gods, mortals and monsters. Miller doesn't strictly follow well-known myth storyline, giving Circe more active participation in many happenings, such as the Minotaur's containment, or her interactions with Daedalus, or how the sea monster Scylla met her destruction, for example, but they're just myths anyway. Why not play around with them a little?
So there may be a slight amount of revisionist mythology here, especially by giving motivations and feelings and depth to Circe and playing around slightly with some of the stories, but this gives the book more relevance to modern day themes of women, their treatment, their reactions, and their burgeoning empowerment. This all makes for a compelling read. Who doesn't enjoy a good tale of gods, monsters and mortals? And the tale is told in lovely, descriptive prose, at time lush. Characters are well drawn and the pace never lagged for me. A good read from beginning to end.
Here, her gifts are used in telling the story of Circe, child of Helios and one of the lesser gods, the first witch of the world. She spins a tale of bravery, gullibility, fear and courage; she tells the tale of a goddess who has the heart of a mortal. I don’t want to give anything away and thus ruin Miller’s spellbinding tales, but it’s not a spoiler to say that I was astounded by the ways in which Miller was able to imbue her heroine with the same human frailties and fears as those of us mere mortals: the love of a mother, the burning shame of disgrace, the slow and fast at once finding of ones identity and center, the ways in which we all reach for more than perhaps we know, the giddy ness of losing ones fear and with it, the donning of grace and gratitude.
Circe’s tales are big, and they’re writ large here. And yet they feel so real and common even as they burn with a strange fire.
Miller deserves to be mentioned among the greats. I look forward to her next creation with excitement and of course more than a little adoration.
Give yourself the beautiful opportunity to see Circe as she has never been seen. Read this book right away!!