Review: Circe

Six years after her Orange Prize-winning novel The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller returns to ancient Greece to sing of Circe, witch, goddess and nymph, daughter of a god, lover to great men and a fearsome power in her own right.

Born to Helios the sun god and his preening wife, Perse, nymph and daughter of the river god Oceanos, Circe has neither the power nor the beauty expected of a daughter of titans. She is bullied by her brother and sister, Perses and Pasiphae, scorned by her mother as unglamorous for her yellow eyes and streaked hair, and overlooked by her father as useless for marrying off. Circe's early years in the obsidian palace of the sun bring only loneliness, until the birth of Aeetes, her youngest brother and first friend.

Before he deserts her for his own kingdom, he mentions the magical pharmaka herbs that grow in places where titans have shed their blood. Desolate, Circe falls in love with a mortal fisherman, but when she uses pharmaka to make him immortal, her nature and that of her siblings is revealed--all have some facility with witchcraft, enabling them to flout the will of the Olympian gods. Ordered by an uneasy Zeus to punish his overreaching offspring, Helios exiles unloved Circe to the island of Aiaia. Her penance turns to pleasure when Circe realizes that a bounty of herbs useful for spells grow there, and that while alone, she has the freedom to do as she wishes. Increasing her knowledge of sorcery through trial and error, Circe plans to spend the rest of her existence in happy solitude, but the Fates have other plans.

Because of her leading lady's immortality, Miller plausibly covers large swaths of mythological material in one narrative. Circe performs the duties of midwife at the birth of the Minotaur, faces down a monster of her own making, clashes with the all-powerful gods, and has run-ins and relationships with Daedalus, Athena, Prometheus, Jason, Medea and, of course, the wily and obligatory Odysseus. However, while readers will expectantly await the King of Ithaca, here he represents only one brief episode in a life rich with striving, triumph and disappointment--a welcome change for a female character most famous for sharing his bed.

Circe's world treats females, particularly nymphs, as currency at best and objects at worst. She must fight to walk a different path. Ambitious in scope, Circe is above all the chronicle of an outsider woman who uses her power and wits to protect herself and the people she loves, ultimately looking within to define herself. Readers will savor the message of standing against a hostile world and forging a new way. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Shelf Talker: Miller's long-awaited sophomore novel returns readers to ancient Greece for a feminist retelling of the myth of Circe, the sorceress famous for beguiling Odysseus.

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