Review: Circe

4 out of 5 stars

Haunting and beautifully bleak, Circe shows us that female empowerment isn’t just for humans. Circe, by Madeline Miller

The Gods of Ancient Greece are not good. They are cruel and cold. Immortality is a gift and also a curse – how can anything have value if nothing can ever be taken away?

Oceanus, an original Titan, sided with Zeus in the war against the Olympians and so was allowed to keep his place as God of the River Oceanus, which circles the Earth and provides all fresh water. Among his many children are three with a nymph named Perse. The oldest – and most useless – of these is Circe. She’s neither beautiful nor powerful. In fact, she’s practically Cinderella – until she makes Cindy’s old mistake: Circe falls in love. With a human.

With no power of her own, Circe secretly learns, brews, and uses a potion. Farcmica, it’s called. The lowest form of power – cooked magic, when most gods have the real thing dripping from their fingertips. But this potion serves Circe’s purpose: she turns her human crush into a god so they can be together.

Then he dumps her for some tramp. So Circe brews again, and turns that tramp into a monstrous, six-headed, 12-tentatcled ravenous sea beast. Now we’re talking.

Madeline Miller’s writing floats as if on a warm sea breeze, the words like motes flashing golden in the sunlight. Audio narrator Perdita Weeks gives a stellar, breathy-yet-evenly voiced performance that feels just about to come into its power. When Circe is exiled to the island Aeaea for her Farmica-based crimes, I felt her sadness without a hint of breaking, as if being immortal had resigned her to this fate forever. But forever is a long time – long enough for Circe to come into her own.

She’s a woman, alone on an island. At first, palace-raised Circe has few wits about her. But sorcery is in her blood now. Though she struggles to teach herself its power, she’s had a taste of what she can do to all those who’ve always done so much to her. Including the inevitable boats full of male sailors who find themselves upon her shore. Reading Circe’s quiet, controlled fury and feeling her earn one shred of magic at a time made for a very satisfying arc. When she comes into her power, this Circe is more a legend that eons of myth ever allowed her to be.

If you know Circe from The Odyssey, that story is here. Odysseus comes to Aeaea, his men are turned to pigs (then released), he spends a year, and then leaves. But Circe is much more than that – she’s immortal, after all. This book tells the before and well after. Circe is expertly woven as guest star into other Greek tales: as a child she interacts with Prometheus, and she is entwined with the story of Daedalus and the Minotaur. Her existing mythology is fleshed out, too: Circe has one son, and battles all challenges that could harm him. She takes responsibility for the great monster she created in her old rival, Scylla. She learns to harness the magic of plants and Earth, of the elements that gods look down upon. With that power, she rises against those who have oppressed her – and sometimes, she even wins. Overall, Circe feels both current and classic. There’s a stoicism in Circe’s immortal rage that is matched by Miller’s writing and Weeks’ narration. As the Witch of Aeaea has taught us, such a combination of the right ingredients makes for a powerful spell.

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