“You are a daughter of Helios, are you not?” he said when he had finished and I’d stepped back.
“Yes.” The question stung. If I had been a proper daughter he would not have had to ask. I would have been perfect and gleaming with beauty, poured straight from my father’s source.
“Thank you for your kindness.”
I did not know if I was kind. I felt I did not know anything. He spoke carefully, his words tentatively, yet his treason had been so brazen. My mind struggled with the contradiction. Bold action and bold manner are not the same.
–Circe by Madeline Miller
Circe by Madeline Miller
Circe is a fantasy novel about Circe, a figure in Greek and Roman mythology who was the daughter of Helios and a nymph named Perse. In a moment of anger, Circe acts out against a fellow nymph, cursing her to live the rest of her life as a monster, and for her actions she is banished to an island where she must live her life alone. Circe goes willingly, but finds that while she does get lonely on her island, she also becomes the mistress of her domain, still able to influence the world around her through the visitors that come to visit.
The character development in this novel is stunning – particularly in Circe herself. At the beginning of the novel, Circe is one of three children between Perse and Helios – her twin brother and sister are beautiful and clever but monstrously selfish, whereas Circe is not as physically flawless, but she conceals a gentle heart that makes her a cast-off in Helios’s home. Circe does not have the god-like powers of her father, but she does have a magic of her own – she is the first witch to be born, and her powers terrify the gods, especially Zeus, who sees her as a threat. Circe at first lacks confidence, feeling herself below her siblings, her mother and father, and the many gods and nymphs who are more beautiful or more treacherous than she is. Because of this rejection, Circe seeks out humanity, and her keen interest in mortals ultimately leads to her banishment from her father’s halls. On Circe’s island, however, Circe learns to rule the world around her, developing her witchcraft through hard work rather than innate skill. Circe’s development from frightened young girl to mature woman in full possession of her gifts was stunning – I loved seeing her act to defend herself or others with her powers, knowing that at the beginning of the novel, she would not have been able to do so.
I have read a good deal of Roman and Greek myths, but have read pieces of myths here and there, getting disjointed stories rather than getting a full narrative from start to finish, so I never had a good feel for the timeline until Circe. I also didn’t realize how many myths did have Circe or traces of Circe in them, so I had no idea until I read this book how much of history she affected. The character development was done so well that I was quite attached to Circe as a character, so it was a lot of fun seeing how all these myths tied in. Many Greek and Roman myths also have several different versions, so I also ended up looking these back up to see where a myth was altered, and where the author just chose a different version than the one that I had known. This really added a lot to the experience for me – it felt like reading about a historical figure, rather than someone that is entirely invented, which helped immerse me into the story and the setting.
I know some have complained about the pacing in Circe, because this definitely is a slow-moving novel. There really didn’t seem to be a good way around it – Circe spends thousands of years living on an island by herself, and a lot of the action takes place without her being present because of her banishment. This still worked for me, because I don’t mind a slow read on occasion, but readers that expected the fast pace of many myths might be disappointed by this novel. For the most part, Circe is about Circe’s development from a young, innocent nymph to the powerful witch of The Odyssey – and on past Odysseus’s death. While there are a few fight scenes and a lot of drama, it wouldn’t be fair to compare it to The Aeneid or Medea.
Circe is still a novel about witchcraft, and I have to comment on how much I absolutely loved the details of Circe’s powers. She describes the magic of the gods as a thing that they can do reflexively, as something they were born with. Witchcraft, however, is a skill that needs built with hard work and effort, and Circe’s combination of humility and patience makes her a far superior witch to others like her. She builds her craft through animal husbandry and work with herbs, and her rich gardens are a sign of her power. Her powers were a natural extension of her personality, and it worked incredibly well with the narrative.
In all, I will give Circe a 9 out of 10. This novel was practically flawless – the characters were spot-on, the world building was rich an detailed, and while the pacing was on the slow side, it felt appropriate, given the main character’s life span. This book will appeal to most, especially mythology fans, but may not be a good choice for readers that are hoping for the action of the myths or those that do not enjoy fantasy.