Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Characters: 3.5/5
A surprisingly engrossing page turner that brings to life the stories of antiquity in a new genre of fictionalized mythology. Circe is a sorceress featured in multiple classic texts including the well-known Homer’s Odyssey. Miller has woven together all references into a gripping narrative that embeds many well-known stories (Theseus and the Minotaur, Jason and the Golden Fleece, etc.) She is astonishingly accurate in her mythology — I was constantly checking some of the stories and always found them documented in some old text — but Miller has brought them to life with a more modern sensibility on the part of Circe herself.
At first I thought this was an “anti-man” book as there were so many scenes of men as raping, pillaging, murdering, beasts, but then I realized that most of the women were pretty awful too: power hungry, scheming, nasty, and cruel. This book will be a big hit with the Games of Thrones crowd. She embedded a different perspective on what had been considered “heroic” literature, allowing the characters (Circe, Penelope, and Telemachus in this case) to question what kind of man Odysseus really was and whether he should actually be considered heroic. All done without getting preachy or pushing an agenda. Also included was a philosophical discourse on the nature of mortality, change, and loneliness.
The writing is excellent — lyrical prose painting vivid mythological portraits of the gods with insight into their motivations and inner world. For example, when her father, Helios the sun god, leaves a place Circe thinks: “Of course he did not consider how black it would be when he was gone. My father has never been able to imagine the world without himself in it.”
Good story, compelling writing, and food for thought all in one.
Some good lines:
“I have seen her do a thousand such tricks a thousand times. My father always fell for them. He believed the world’s natural order was to please him.”
“Yet they were both Titans and preferred each other’s company to those new-squeaking gods upon Olympus who had not seen the making of the world.”
“It made me dizzy to realize that this was but a fraction of a fraction of all the men the world had bred. How could such variation endure, such endless iteration of minds and faces? Did the earth not go mad?”
“The revulsion was plain on her face. Once when I was young I asked what mortals looked like. My father said, “You may say they are shaped like us, but only as the worm is shaped like the whale.” My mother had been simpler: like savage bags of rotten flesh.”
“This was how mortals found fame, I thought. Through practice and diligence, tending their skills like gardens until they glowed beneath the sun. But gods are born of ichor and nectar, their excellences already bursting from their fingertips. So they find their fame by proving what they can mar: destroying cities, starting wars, breeding plagues and monsters”
“The closest we come is weaving or smithing, but these things are skills and there is no drudgery to them since all the parts that might be unpleasant are taken away with power. The wool is dyed not with stinking vats and stirring spoons, but with a snap. There is no tedious mining, the ores leap willing from the mountain.”
“I had scarcely known true intelligence — I had spoken to Prometheus for only a moment, and in all the rest of Oceanos’ halls most of what passed for as cleverness was only archness and spite. Hermes’ mind was a thousand times sharper and more swift.”
“He did not thank Medea for her aid; he scarcely looked at her. As if a demigoddess saving him at every turn was only his due.”
One thought on “Circe by Madeline Miller (Literary Fiction)”
Song of Achilles, also wonderful.