Book review: Madeline Miller’s “Circe”

I’ve been waiting for this for so long you would not believe!

In case you guys didn’t know, I love Madeline Miller’s “The Song of Achilles“. I finished reading it during a cremation and I have a sneaking suspicion that people thought I was crying for the dead but I literally was crying at the part where Patroclus had to witness Achilles’ death.

At the time, I honestly didn’t know if Miller was ever going to follow that up with another work, and for the most part I had been happy that she had at least that one novel in her. So imagine my surprise when I saw a copy of “Circe” on the shelves of National Bookstore! I freaked out a bit about it on Twitter.

Of course, a seven year wait doesn’t necessarily mean quality. Add to that the fact that the sophomore slump is a real thing. Then add to that the fact that I had really high hopes for this novel, and you may have a recipe for disaster. Will “Circe” be as luminous as “The Song of Achilles”? Or will it fail to achieve immortality?

Just like “The Song of Achilles”, “Circe” turns a familiar character on its head by telling it from an unexpected perspective. While a memorable character in “The Odyssey”, Circe’s story is still in service of that of Odysseus. In this novel, Circe takes center stage, and readers are taken on a journey through the long years of her life.

Circe’s life begins as a child of the Titan Helios, the eldest but the least favored among his four children. It’s far from a blessed life — her siblings Perses and Pasiphae constantly pick on her, and the friendship she thought she had with her younger brother Aeetes turns out to be a sham.

However, her life takes a turn when she discovers that she has the power of witchcraft, something that threatens both Titans and Olympians. Zeus exiles her to the isle of Aiaia, and the growing strength of her witchcraft draws the heroes and villains of Greek mythology to her. But when the course of her long life leads her to a crossroads, will she be able to make the right choice?

The character of Circe has been viewed through many different lenses over the decades, and Miller choosing to write her as a woman who slowly comes to her own and realizes her power is a great decision. It gives Circe’s story an almost teleserye-like quality, as we see her change from being a bullied sibling to a woman able to face down even an Olympian.

It’s very much a woman’s story, which I suspect is the reason to why I could not connect as intensely to this novel as I did to “The Song of Achilles”. I’m not saying this to dismiss it as a “woman’s story”. After all, as a gay man I’m an expert in relating to stories so far removed from my own lived experience. It’s just that after going for so long without seeing myself in the media I consume, and seeing the many strides made in representation, I now find myself craving more and more stories that reflect me.

It’s a lot like the way I felt reading Maggie Stiefvater’s “Blue Lily, Lily Blue” after reading “The Dream Thieves“. Now that I know that there’s gay people in this fictional universe, that’s all I’m ever going to think about.

Nevertheless, it should definitely not deter anyone from reading “Circe”. This book is as great a retelling of a familiar story as “The Song of Achilles” was, and Circe’s story of vengeance, empowerment, and self-realization is sure to resonate among women, especially those who’ve ever been underestimated or abused.

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