Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

20 Books of Summer 2020: Book 2

I loved Greek mythology when I was a kid. The stories had a kind of randomness—the appearance of monsters, transformations into animals, and Zeus making a pass at everything with a pulse. Madeline Miller’s Circe borrows its plot points from famous myths, but centers Circe in each. True to the source material, the gods are largely uninterested in mortal concerns, getting involved for their own reasons with little concern for humanity. Circe is most interesting when probing the gap between gods and mortals—though Circe inherits a long life and rapid healing from her sun-god father and nymph mother, they view her as lesser and she doesn’t fit in. Nor does she fit in among mortals, who occasionally mistake her for a goddess.

After she’s pushed aside by more powerful beings, Circe retaliates and is exiled to an island, Aiaia, where she refines her magic with plants and animals. This is where Odysseus finds her after the Trojan War. If you’re familiar with The Odyssey, you’re familiar with Circe’s island. The key difference is that in the original story, Circe is a minor roadblock in Odysseus’s journey. Here, she has her own agency and Odysseus is a distraction to her. He’s not an underdeveloped character, though. I admire Miller’s ability to flesh out the supporting cast while writing in Circe’s voice.

Strangely, the story lagged for me when Odysseus showed up even though it was my familiarity with The Odyssey that led me to read this book in the first place. From Circe’s vantage point, the gods are powerful and imposing, while humans are small and their struggles are ultimately futile. Not that this theme isn’t amply expressed in both The Odyssey and The Iliad, but because Circe exists in an in-between space, her observations are more complicated. The “hero” mortals are also shown in their more tired, put-upon moments and Circe clearly pities them. This is set against her respect for Prometheus and her exile from home:

No matter how vivid they were in life, no matter how brilliant, no matter the wonders they made, they came to dust and smoke. Meanwhile, every petty and useless god would go on sucking down the bright air until the stars went dark. (165)

You don’t need to be familiar with Greek mythology to read this book, but there’s a heap of dramatic irony available if you are. e.g., Medea shows up and haughtily explains that everything is going to be fine between her and Jason. It’s hard to rate this book because a lot of what makes it so wonderful is my general affection for mythology. Even though many plot turns aren’t Miller’s inventions, she’s done an excellent job of choosing which stories to include and which angles to take. The additional layers and context that Circe gives to the myths made me appreciate them more, while they helped me appreciate Circe in turn… it’s a chicken and egg thing, really.

The most impressive aspect for me is the way Miller conveys the passage of time—tough to do with a functionally-immortal character. She does this by convincingly portraying Circe’s initial loneliness on her island and the time spent learning magic. Even better, Circe is radically different at the end of the book than she is at the beginning, and all of this growth is wonderfully subtle and organic. Given that I devoured this book in about a day, I’m surprised that I could sense the passage of time at all. This also allows Circe’s abilities and victories to feel hard won and earned. Though her heritage is no doubt part of her magic, her skills are due to her patience, curiosity, and willingness to spend hours, months, days, and years on her craft. Her magic isn’t just magic—it’s work too. She makes mistakes and it’s never a foregone conclusion that she’ll prevail in any of the novel’s conflicts.

Overall: 5.0 (out of 5.0)

Image credit: Goodreads

Previously on

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  • The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak
  • Florida by Lauren Groff
  • The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier
  • The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski
  • The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham
  • The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
  • There There by Tommy Orange
  • Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann

Reading in progress

  • The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
  • Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
  • The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
  • Less by Andrew Sean Greer
  • Normal People by Sally Rooney
  • Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett
  • The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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