The 2018 book Circe by Madeline Miller retells the mythological story of the daughter of Helios and a nymph named Perse. Helios is the sun god and a Titan, the group of original gods. (That brings an entirely different meaning to the current term OG.) Myths credit her mother with introducing herbalism and witchcraft. However, Circe spends her childhood reviled by the court of Titans, including the nymphs. She is “othered” by both groups and never entirely considered adequate by either. But when she’s banished for dabbling in witchcraft, Circe moves into her full power.
The banishment offers Circe the chance to be herself. Still, she struggles to put aside the name-calling and denigration of her childhood. Overcoming the nasty things people said is a millennium-long endeavor for this goddess. At the same time, she experiments with her powers of witchcraft, especially herbalism and its related spells.
Despite being punished with solitude, Circe’s island, called Aiaia, remains visible to passing sailors. And even goddess witches are vulnerable to the violent sexual actions of such men. But Circe finds a solution worthy of a woman with her skills. This solidifies her talents.
She’s not all violence and anger though. She actually finds some companionship and even loves along the way. Nevertheless, the whims of Circe’s family draw her into multiple questionable situations. Along the way, Circe figures out who she really is, separate from other people’s judgments and nasty behavior. That is the real reward for both character and the reader.
When this book first debuted, I saw lots of people loving it on social media. Not long after, I added it to my bookshelves. But month after month passed and I never started it. In the meantime, I read Miller’s amazing book The Song of Achilles. Still, I never read Circe.
Finally, I started it last month. Sadly, it just didn’t live up to that extended anticipation and hype. The storyline only plodded along, rather than sizzling with fun and wickedness. I didn’t like Circe much, despite her strong feminist vibes. Instead, she seemed just as petty and cranky as the nymphs and gods she escaped.
Miller is a writer I will read again, based on the strength of her retelling of Achilles’s story. I’m glad I read it first. Because if I’d started with Circe, perhaps I would’ve skipped Achilles. And, as always, your mileage may vary.
I recommend Circe if you like mythological retellings with strong feminist vibes and don’t mind a very slow build with unlikeable characters.
Pair with The Song of Achilles, also by Madeline Miller. For a nonfiction choice, read Women & Power: A Manifesto from Mary Beard. She explores the way Greek mythology silences women—a perfect fit for Circe’s story of rebellion.