Circe by Madeline Miller

It’s been a long wait for Madeline Miller’s second novel (her first, The Song of Achilles, was published in 2011), and now that I’ve read it I’m pleased to say that I thought it was worth waiting for. I enjoyed The Song of Achilles, though maybe not as much as other people seemed to, but I found Circe an even more interesting read with characters and storylines which I personally found much more appealing.

I will start by admitting that before beginning this novel, I knew nothing about the witch Circe other than what I remembered from her appearance in the Odyssey, when Odysseus lands on the island where she lives alone with her lions and wolves, turning men into pigs. My knowledge of Greek mythology is sadly lacking, so I was curious to find out what else her story would involve and how it would be enough to fill a whole book.

The first thing we learn is that Circe is the daughter of the sun god Helios and the Oceanid nymph Perse. She grows up in the shadow of her seemingly more talented siblings, possessing neither the beauty of her sister Pasiphaë, who goes on to marry King Minos of Crete, nor the magical powers of her brothers Perses and Aeëtes (the future king of Colchis). To make matters worse, she even has the voice of a mortal rather than a goddess. It is only when she is driven by an uncontrollable jealousy to cast a spell on a rival that she discovers she does have a talent for witchcraft after all…but this same action results in her exile to the remote island of Aiaia.

Her new home is lonely but peaceful and Circe occupies herself with taming the wild animals that share her island and learning the properties of the flowers and herbs that grow there. Gradually she becomes aware of the true extent of her abilities as a witch and finds that she is not the failure she has always believed herself to be.

Let me say what sorcery is not: it is not divine power, which comes with a thought and a blink. It must be made and worked, planned and searched out, dug up, dried, chopped and ground, cooked, spoken over and sung. Even after all that, it can fail, as gods do not. If my herbs are not fresh enough, if my attention falters, if my will is weak, the draughts go stale and rancid in my hands.

Although Zeus has forbidden her to leave the island, Circe is not entirely isolated and she receives a number of visitors bringing news from the outside world. I was surprised by how many different myths Madeline Miller pulls into the story – myths even I was familiar with, such as Jason and the Golden Fleece, Daedalus and Icarus, the torture of Prometheus, and the Minotaur in the Labyrinth. I hadn’t expected to find all of these in a book about Circe (and I’m not sure how much involvement, if any, she has in other versions of these myths), but the way in which they were woven into the novel felt quite natural. The only problem is that with Circe trapped on her island, there’s a sense that most of the action is taking place elsewhere and our heroine is left to rely on information brought by Hermes and her other visitors.

It is not until halfway through the book that Odysseus comes to Aiaia and Circe’s story begins to overlap with the events of the Odyssey. This is another turning point in Circe’s life, as the time she spends with Odysseus leaves her with some important choices to make and carries the novel forward towards its conclusion.

I loved Circe; it’s a beautifully written novel and ideal for readers like myself who only have a basic knowledge of the Greek myths. I felt a stronger connection with Circe herself than I did with Patroclus in The Song of Achilles and for that reason this is my favourite of the two books, but I do think if you enjoy one of them you’ll probably enjoy the other.

Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

17 thoughts on “Circe by Madeline Miller

  1. Judy Krueger says:

    Excellent! I am so looking forward to reading this. I too had some lukewarm moments with The Song of Achilles. To learn from you that Circe is better makes me even more excited to read it. I am still working through The Odyssey, taking my time though it is a joy to read, but I am past the Circe part so maybe I won’t wait to read it. I wonder how long the waiting list will be at the library!

    • Helen says:

      I preferred this one to The Song of Achilles because it incorporates so many different myths and characters, and because the Odyssey is more interesting to me than the Iliad. I hope you don’t have to wait too long to read it!

  2. Carmen says:

    I tried not to read too much of the plot, in your words, mostly your impressions, because I am in the middle of reading Circe right now. Miller is blowing my mind with this one. So far I concur with your impressions, but I still have half way to go. I so want to read The Song of Achilles after this. 😌

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you’re reading it too, Carmen, and I hope you enjoy the second half of the book as much as the first. I would definitely recommend reading The Song of Achilles after you finish this one. I personally liked Circe better, but they are both great books.

  3. cirtnecce says:

    Wonderful review and I am hearing a lot of amazing things about this book from quite a few readers whose tastes I admire and trust, including you! I am really looking forward to getting started on this!

    • Helen says:

      Thank you! I really enjoyed this book, particularly as I don’t know very much about Greek mythology. I hope you’re able to read it soon too.

  4. Lisa says:

    I never got around to The Song of Achilles, despite reading many enthusiastic reviews about it. But this one has definitely piqued my interest.

    • Helen says:

      I enjoyed both books, but I thought this one was better. It really depends on whether you prefer to read about the Trojan War or the events of the Odyssey.

    • Helen says:

      I loved this book, so I definitely think you should add it to your wish list. 🙂 The Song of Achilles is good too and as they are both standalones you can read them in either order.

  5. justjase79 says:

    I’m glad to hear you enjoyed this. When they began promoting the special limited edition hardcover of Circe, it was so hard to resist because it was beautiful and just the sort of thing I am a sucker for. I had to force myself to back down by telling myself I might regret it if it turns out I don’t like the book. I don’t regret not buying it… yet, but hearing you liked it is definitely edging me towards it.

    • Helen says:

      I received the ebook version from Netgalley, but I wished I had the physical book because it does look beautiful. I hope you enjoy it if you do decide to buy it. If you have any interest at all in Greek mythology I think you’ll find it interesting.

    • Helen says:

      The Song of Achilles and Circe are completely separate books and both stand alone, so they don’t need to be read in order. I would recommend just starting with the one that appeals to you most. I loved both!

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