I remember when Madeline Miller‘s Circe first came out in April 2018. It was all over the bookstores and its shining cover drew me in. But it wasn’t until January 2019 that I finally bought the book, signing up for Book of the Month to get it. Now, over a year after that purchase, I’ve finally read Circe, and it has more than lived up to the hype and my inexplicably extensive delay in opening it up.
While I’m loosely aware of the major stories in Greek mythology – I’ve seen Disney’s Hercules and heard a number of the other stories, mostly through my sister, who has an illustrated book of the Greek myths – I’d never heard of Circe. Many well-known gods, mortals, and monsters appear in her story, and we get to see how she weaves in and out of those narratives. But more than anything, Circe tells the story of a naive and lonely girl, her rise to power, and her path through magic and vengeance to her ultimate realization of happiness and peace.
Circe is born to Helios, Titan god of the sun, and a nymph named Perse. She has a sister and two brothers, plus innumerable aunts, uncles, and cousins. But in spite of her extensive and immortal family, Circe is constantly shunned, belittled, and reviled through no fault of her own. She’s met with cruelty for centuries before eventually being banished to the island of Aiaia.
Up until then, Circe was a shrinking goddess, and you couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. Her treatment was unfair, yet she endured it. But upon being exiled to Aiaia, Circe slowly begins to come into her own. She – like her three siblings – is among the first four witches the world as ever known, and during her years alone, she hones her skills. She’s patient and intelligent, and eventually her witchcraft is both strong and reliable. Circe is particularly fond of transforming creatures and objects into new forms, and she can conjure up lions and create monsters at will. This power starts to make her more confident and able to stand up for herself.
Circe doesn’t follow one clear plot arc from start to finish. Instead, it follows its titular lead into the tales of Greek mythology’s biggest legends. We see Circe help her unloving sister, Pasiphaë, give birth to the monstrous Minotaur, then work with Daedalus to lock the creature up. Later, Circe meets Medea and Jason in their flight from her brother, Aeëtes.
The book has been related to the #MeToo movement, and indeed, Circe suffers sexual assault while living on her lonely island. But she turns her victimhood into vengeance, and uses her transformative powers to strike back. This eventually leads to her meeting the wily Odysseus.
Finally, Circe culminates in a tale of family, love, and choice. We get to see how strong-willed Circe is, and how her perception of others and herself evolves. She can take on Olympian gods like Athena and Hermes, monsters like Scylla, and of course mortal men. But she can also free herself of her tormented existence and choose to live on her own terms.
Circe is an empowering story of transformation, confidence, and control. It’s a thrill to watch Circe grow as a character – across a span of centuries – and eventually use her powers to change her own fate. It’s understandable why it was voted Book of the Year by Book of the Month, and it’s exciting to know that it will be adapted into an 8-episode HBO series, out this spring. I definitely encourage you to read Circe, for its captivating writing, its glimpse into Greek mythology, and its impactful story of a memorable witch goddess.
I’ll have to get Madeline Miller’s first novel, The Song of Achilles, next! Her writing and vivid world of Ancient Greece is enchanting, and I’m excited to read her past and future books.