Circe is sort of an upmarket character-study, by way of classic mythology. I really enjoyed it; to me it really had a ‘literary’ vibe. Because of that, I’m not sure that a hardcore genre-fantasy fan would be as enthused as I was, although there is sorcery and monsters and—of course—gods and goddesses.
Anyone who’s taken Classic Literature in high school probably remembers Circe from The Odyssey. She was the mysterious enchantress who kept Odysseus captive on her island—and who turned his fellow sailors into pigs. Even in the Odyssey, Circe is presented as a complicated character. Both Odysseus’ captor and his mistress. A seductress and a seducee (is that a word?). A ‘dangerous woman’ and also an invaluable advisor. I guess the ancient Greeks were in love with anti-heroes, creating complicated characters like Odysseus, Achilles, and Athena long before we had Tony Soprano, Claire Underwood, or that other Cersei from Game of Thrones.
In this 400-page novel, Madeline Miller expounds upon all of Circe’s life, not just that year she spent with the famous trickster from Ithaca. I was fascinated to see how much of Miller’s story had roots in actual ancient poems or stories. The plot was packed full of palace intrigue and familial drama. Of course, Miller seems to smooth over some parts, or flesh out others with her vivid imagination and a lovely sense of character-work.
The story kicks in shortly after the war of the old gods (the Titans) and the new gods (Zeus’ Olympians). Of course, the Olympians are victorious, and many of the most bellicose Titans are banished to an eternal hell. Circe is the immortal daughter of a Titan, Helios (god of the sun), and a nymph named Perse. Helios is the benefactor of a precarious truce with the Olympians; he is allowed to maintain his court and most of his power. Circe is not extraordinarily beautiful or overwhelmingly charming—which is to say she’s scorned by her divine family.
During her centuries-long coming-of-age, Circe realizes she is extraordinary in a different sort of way. She has powers that make her a new sort immortal—not a Titan or an Olympian, but something else that could upset the balance of the fragile peace. Upon discovering Circe’s new talents, Helios quickly agrees to Zeus’ suggestion that Circe be exiled to a solitary island on Earth.
That’s just the end of the first act. For an exile, Circe certainly gets around. Besides her affair with Odysseus, Circe has encounters with Daedalus (the famous inventor), Medea (her niece), the Minotaur (her nephew!), the six-headed monster Scylla (love the origin story here), Penelope (Odysseus’ wife, gulp!) and many more.
I especially like the last third of the book, when events turn to make Circe’s existence less lonesome, but many-times more perilous. (No spoilers!) I was so intrigued that I had jump on Wikipedia where I found out that once again the crazy events of the book were all partially based on real stories in antiquity. Circe was already a Classic anti-hero with a complicated past—even 2,500 years ago. And Madeline Miller does a fantastic job of bringing the character into the 21st Century and reintroducing her to modern readers in a most enchanting way.