Review: Circe

Posted on January 31st, 2018 @ 16:35
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CirceCirce by Madeline Miller

My rating:

Blurb:

In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child–not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power–the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.

Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.

But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

Review:

[I received a copy of this book through Edelweiss.]

A few years ago, I had read and really liked “The Song of Achilles”, and I had high hopes for Miller’s “Circe”. I wasn’t disappointed.

A retelling of myths surrounded Circe, daughter of sun-god Helios and nymph Perses, this novel focuses of course on the eponymous character, from a much more humanised point of view, making her closer to us and easier to root for. I haven’t brushed up on my Greek mythology in quite some time, and my memories of what I knew about Circe were a bit foggy, but I quickly found my marks again—the deities she’s surrounded with, the mortals she meets (Odysseus being the most famous), as well as slight variations (although I don’t remember reading myths where Circe and Daedalus meet, that was definitely a touching addition, and not an illogical one anyway).

I do remember how, when I was much younger and got interested in Greek mythology, most of the legends I read were the usual male-centric ones, with figures like Circe or Medusa presented as antagonists, somewhat evil and monstrous, impediments to the heroes’ journeys. So whenever I get my hands on a retelling from their point of view, and it happens to be humanised and qualified *and* well-written on top of that, as is the case here, I’m definitely happy about it. Here, turning Odysseus’ men is much less an act of evil than a way for Circe to defend herself before the sailors do to her what previous sailors did (and she doesn’t do it immediately, she does ‘give them a chance’ and studies them first to see how they’re going to behave). Here, the heroes are larger than life, but through Circe’s gaze, we also see their mortality and the imperfections that go with it, the difference between what the bards sing of them and the men they actually were.

No one is perfect in this story; not Circe herself, not the gods, not the humans. In a way, even though half the cast is made of immortal deities, this novel is a study of humanity. Circe’s voice—a voice the gods perceive as shrilly, but is in fact, all that simply, a mortal’s voice, soft and weak compared to theirs—has a haunting quality, too, thanks to the poetic and evocative prose that carries the story. And so it takes us through her contradictions, her pain and hopes, her realisation that she’ll never get her father’s approval, her exile, and her lingering her regrets at what she did in the past (Miller went here with a version similar to Hyginus’, making Circe the cause to Scylla’s transformation, as well as Glaucus’ through her first act of witchcraft). From a little girl neglected by her parents and bullied by her siblings, she goes through life making mistakes, angry and exiled, but also learns from this, and becomes in time a wiser person, who won’t hesitate to stand up for what she cares for, using her magic to better ends.

This read was perhaps a little confusing without more than just a basic notions about Greek mythology (the glossary at the end helps, though). I’m also not entirely happy with the ending, which I probably would have enjoyed more had it been reversed. Nevertheless, I found it mostly enjoyable and enthralling.

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