Circe by Madeline Miller

Circe is a retelling of Greek mythology full of storytelling, magic, and female power in the face of mockery and banishment. After having rewritten Homer’s Iliad in The Song of Achilles, Miller turns to his Odyssey for this novel, with Circe as main character. Born to the sun god Helios and a naiad, Circe is an outsider from her birth with a strange voice and yellow eyes. Her siblings mock her and her prospects don’t even stretch as far as becoming a wife. When she meets a handsome young fisherman, Glaucus, she meddles in his life to try and suit herself, but gods and mortals don’t mix, and soon Circe is discovering more about herself, power she did not know she had, and it sets her on the way to becoming the witch of the island Aiaia.

Miller has written an intricate novel, tying together many classical stories through the perspective of Circe, including that of her sister Pasiphae and her infamous time married to Minos, and Circe’s encounters with the hero Odysseus. Her ostracised position means that though these stories are shown first hand, many others are told to her as tales or given as answers to her enquiries about those she once knew. The effect is a weaving together of stories, particularly for readers who know only some bits of Greek mythology, and overall it works well to give not only Circe’s story, but new perspectives on other tales too.

The novel starts fairly slowly and covers a lot of ground as her immortal lifespan allows the narrative to keep progressing. This does mean that it can be difficult to get into at first, but once Circe is on Aiaia the book blooms into the tale of a woman who carves her own place, both physically and using magic and power, in a world that seemed to be against her. In particular, Miller highlights the tension between gods and mortals, not only as separate entities, but within individuals.

Circe is a different beast to The Song of Achilles, focused on female power and nature rather than the battles of the Trojan war, but it does have similar themes of love and loss, plus questions of mortality and remembrance. As a character, Circe is given an agency not always found in tales of male heroes and many readers will find this a refreshing take on the Odyssey (though it is likely others will question Miller’s choices regarding the variable interpretations of these stories).