Madeline Miller, Circe (2018)

Author: Madeline Miller

Title: Circe

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 393

Series: –

Madeline Miller, of The Song of Achilles fame, decided to return to tried and true formula of retelling, embellishing and altering Greek myths to suit modern audiences. Armed with sharply evocative, melancholy writing style and selective empathy, Miller chose to tackle the story of Circe, daughter of Helios, one of the very few witches of Greek mythology, and one famous mostly for her encounter with wily Odysseus.

One thing I cannot deny this book is its ambition. It takes a lot of ambition, and plenty of guts, to take a third-rate character and from their point of view present – or rather rewrite – a huge portion of Greek mythology, its gods and its heroes. It’s a shrewd move, for who can say what Circe was really like? We know her only from the words of others – as a sorceress, a mistress of manipulation and transformation, and a cynical enemy of men, who in time is tamed by an even greater schemer, the cunning legendary trickster Odysseus. She is the maker of Scylla, the six-headed man-eating monster. She is the sister of Pasifae, who gave birth to the terrible Minotaur. As Helios’s daughter, she is counted among the Titans; as Perse’s daughter, she is often demoted to nymphs. Circe is a rare creature; only few in Greek mythology are known for magic as not an innate limited power but something akin to alchemy: dabbling in potions and herbs, speaking incantations, waving wands. Mythological Circe is proud and powerful; an absolute ruler on her island, served by a host of dryads and naiads.

But the majority of what we know about her comes from Odysseus’s words. When Odysseus lands on Circe’s island Aiaia, full of weirdly tame beasts, his men are turned into pigs. Odysseus avoids that fate only because Hermes helps him, giving him an antidote to magic – the famed herb moly. He threatens Circe with his sword and she falls to her knees, begging him to come to her bed, “to learn to trust in one another.” Can we believe that the powerful sorceress falls in love with Odysseus right after he brandishes his sword (no pun intended)? Hardly. The bed is just another ruse, a well-designed one, after years of war and travels, to render Odysseus helpless. That’s why he demands a powerful, binding oath from Circe not to harm him or his. And let’s not forget that Odysseus is not the most reliable narrator in the world, and that he has a vested interest in depicting himself in a better light – but Homer never tries to conceal it (contrary to Miller’s Circe, I might add). In the original myths Circe is a typical foil for the hero, an obstacle on his difficult road home – an obstacle to be somehow conquered, removed, or turned into an asset. “The true sister of murderous-minded Aeetes” eventually becomes a valued and cherished ally, as evidenced in the birth of Telegonus, Circe and Odysseus’s son. She advises Odysseus, equips him in knowledge vital to his survival for the next stages of his journey, becomes his partner to whom he returns, and returns again before finally setting sail for Ithaca (depending on a version, Odysseus had from one to three sons with Circe).

But what about the Circe from Miller’s novel? She is a victim turned a tormentor, who after centuries, through meaningful relationships, overcomes the endless cycle of violence and becomes her own person. Victimhood of Circe is manifold; you won’t find in Miller’s narrative many traces of the proud, cunning, ruthless sorceress from Greek myths. Instead, you’ll find an unloved, neglected daughter and sister. A spurned lover, achieving her first acts of transformation more through accidental convergence of factors than an effort of will and knowledge. A prey of gods and men, growing pale and stunted in the shadow of bigger, more powerful or simply more grasping family members. A scapegoat, sacrificed for the lasting peace between Titans and Olympians, whose everlasting exile on the island of Aiaia paradoxically becomes her chance to finally grow into herself. She finds empowerment in her gifts, makes her own place among the gods and mortals, and in time becomes a power in her own right, a power to be reckoned with.

So, Miller’s Circe is a story of feminist empowerment. It’s an interesting concept, and more than that – one that offers opportunity to discuss certain aspects of our culture which for centuries have been treated as so obvious and unquestionable that they became nearly unnoticeable. There is value in this approach, and I appreciate it all the more for my own love and respect for mythology. And I really enjoyed the easy, flowing melody of narrative, the whimsy and sadness of the early chapters of Miller’s Circe enough to turn a blind eye toward the myriad twists and changes introduced to the original myths. Miller gives her protagonist more agency, cleverly bending existing myths to insinuate Circe’s actions into established narratives, skewing perspectives and thus fleshing out the heroine of her novel. I was absolutely fine with Circe helping Prometheus (ah, maybe not “absolutely” – this one seemed far-fetched) or with Circe responsible for Glaucus’s transformation. I enjoyed reading about her relationships with Pasifae, Hermes and Daedalus; and while I had my reservations about Miller’s explanation of Circe’s villainous origins – I admit I grew weary of that “victim to perpetrator” trope, it has been vastly overused and irrevocably trivialized by Disney – I could still see where the motivation for this choice came from. But with Odysseus it all came crashing down. Painfully, I might add.

I’ll be frank and quick now, as this review has grown too long already. I don’t comprehend the concept that one’s greatness is inevitably bound with another’s belittlement. I just don’t get it. I don’t understand why Miller, so intent on lionizing Circe, chose to depict Odysseus as a nasty little man, full of himself and quick to anger, and a cold-blooded, psychopathic killer to boot. Did she do it so that she could explain Circe’s later decision to marry Odysseus’s son, Telemachus? Was it to show that she was exchanging him for a better model, is that it? Because, as you can expect – Telemachus in Circe is a living perfection. Considerate, kind, brave, wouldn’t harm a fly. Never heard of him? Hmm. Wonder why.

Odysseus was far from perfection. He was indeed a ruthless killer – all Greek heroes were. Because for all Miller’s laudable effort and knowledge she seems to forget that Greek concept of heroism was an ambivalent one; a hero was a degree above norm in everything they did, for better or worse. They were not Captain America, a walking embodiment of ideals. Greek heroes were fallible, proud, they made mistakes – and their mistakes were catastrophes. But what made them heroes was their unconquerable will to improve; to become better versions of themselves. To overcome the fate, and the will of gods; to give humanity hope. They not always succeeded; heck, they failed more often than not. But they tried, or died trying. Miller attempts to deprive Odysseus of this heroism. An old, bitter war veteran with an ugly soul – that’s what Odysseus is in Circe. There’s just one little problem with this logic – if Odysseus was such a rotten person, why would anyone get so hung up on him as to give him three sons and marry the one that wasn’t hers?

Rant over, and the only thing left to do here is a summary. I applaud Miller’s writing skill. Circe flows with fluid ease, filled with emotion and precision of phrase. It’s nostalgic and melancholy, poetic and evocative. It asks for empathy and gives empathy – just not to everyone. And this is my main complaint regarding this novel: in trying to vaunt Circe, Miller attempts to discredit Odysseus. I admit I have an academic interest in Greek mythology – and the depiction of war veterans in Greek epic is a part of my research. To see them belittled and dismissed as bragging, swaggering, unfeeling “males” is deeply disconcerting. Maybe if I didn’t study this topic, I’d be more lenient in my opinions. As it is, for all the beauty of language, subtle skills of retelling, and the crafty boldness of the message of empowerment, Circe left me with a feeling of disappointment.

Score: 6,5/10

62 thoughts on “Madeline Miller, Circe (2018)

  1. I’ve heard mostly good things about this but how have I not read it yet? See, I don’t have a degree in Greek mythology, so maybe it’d work better. Or… maybe not 😂 I do kinda like Odysseus, so…

    Plus both a rant and a ramble? Ola, I’m proud of you! I feel like most of my reviews have those.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. LOL, thank you, Will! 🤣🤣🤣
      I really wanted to like it. And I did like it, to a point. It’s just that when I see that superiority-inferiority complex at play I get absolutely incensed 😂
      Why aggrandizement must go hand in hand with belittlement? I thought empowerment is not exclusive…

      I don’t have a degree in Greek mythology, now I wonder if you can actually get one… 🤔 😂

      Liked by 3 people

  2. ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ – that’s for your awesome review! I loved the comparison with the original myths. After all, Miller’s take is not a retelling but she creates a mythology of her own.
    Have you read her Song of Achilles? I’ve only heard good things so far and would read that one first.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! 😊
      No, I haven’t. I’m actually a bit loath to read it now, especially that it’s advertised as a love story. Funny thing, how people diversely interpret the category of parabatai – lovers, brothers, comrades… If modern military is anything to judge by, the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus could have been completely asexual; love is a complex and nuanced emotion, after all. Victorian era would see them as brothers; today, majority of interpretations seems to be focused on a sexual component of their bond, seeing Briseis as a simple slave.
      There is a great book about Achilles’s wrath, called The Anger of Achilles. Menis in Greek Epic by Leonard Mueller. I can recommend this one heartily, though it must be mentioned that it’s an academic book 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No, sorry, no academic writing outside my profession 😁
        In our times, parabatai obviously calls for a queer interpretation to be politically correct. Anything more subtle would be cried down by loud trolls.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Ah well, can’t say I disagree – I wouldn’t want to read a computer science academic book! 😁

          Yes, sadly, you seem to have the right of it. Our times generally don’t seem to take kindly to subtlety or measured approaches…

          Liked by 1 person

  3. There is very little chance I ever would have read this or anything by Miller but having my fears justified, well, it 100% isn’t happening.

    It seems to be a modern mindset that one thing can’t be great without destroying something else. THAT I blame on decades of social engineering by communists and communist-lites…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I had hoped for this one. And it’s written very well. Alas… I totally get your perspective now 😂

      I know you like to blame these things on communists, but I don’t think they had particularly much to do with it – no more than other authoritarian regimes and their believers, at least 😉 I agree though, that type of thinking seems to be quite prevalent in our times, to my sorrow. That said, I only ever lived in our times, and maybe that’s simply a universal affliction, typical for humanity regardless of times – I just feel it keenly now, because I know now the best 😉

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  4. I’ve had this book on my TBR for a while now, and was intrigued by its roots in Greek mythology, which back in high school (ages and ages and ages ago…) was one of my favorite subjects and still fascinates me. Another element that drew me to this story was its different point of view on the character of Circe, so it pains me to learn that the… restyling of Circe’s myth happens at the expense of other characters, as if the author wanted to tip the scales heavily in favor of her “heroine”… I agree with you when you say that those heroes of myth were not exactly “boys next door”, but to turn them into ugly parodies of themselves seems a little too much. I very much appreciate the warning, though… 🙂
    Very thoughtful review, thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Maddalena! 😊

      Many people were thoroughly enchanted by this book – it offers a spellbinding weave indeed, and a welcome change of perspective. But I found that while offering a lot of empathy to single motherhood and victims of sexual and psychological abuse, “Circe” has no understanding whatsoever of the plight of war veterans and men in general – though, frankly, there aren’t many likeable or positively portrayed characters. Except for the obvious one, Circe herself, in the whole novel there are maybe two other positive characters – and both of them end up as Circe’s lovers, and none of them is Odysseus 😉 Talk about unreliable narrator! 😁

      Liked by 2 people

  5. A subtle and thoughtful review, thank you — and a kick up the butt for me as I’ve had a copy of this ever since it came out in paperback and have still not read it. Maybe it’s because I’m leary of any simplistic analysis of Greek myths in their myriad and often contradictory manifestations.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Chris! 😀

      That’s the problem with retellings in general – they tend toward simplistic, and what pains me most is the lost potential, especially when they are skillfully written. I wish I could say that at least new generations would learn something about Greek myths from these retellings, but they are often – like Circe – totally incompatible with the originals…

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      1. Retellings of myths are ever problematic. One could argue that every generation, every age retells myths anyway, and I have some sympathy with that point of view. The middle ages retold classical myths, and yet had their heroes going to an anachronistic mass; Renaissance playwrights adapted legendary histories as plays and introduced further distortions into narratives; but we don’t necessarily judge them as failing for contaminating, say, the details of the stories of a historical Macbeth, a legendary Lear or a mythical Amleth with contemporary values or attitudes.

        Yet I have issues with retellings that are irreverent, or implausible, or clumsily told because I simply can’t invest in characters without motivation, impossible coincidences or lazy plotting. And, yes, simplistic reductions of old stories already rich in complexities.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I agree that each era (generation might be too narrow) needs their own approach to myths; the world changes, and the problems we face often change their appearance even if not nature; certain themes seem more important at some times and not other. I am fine with that – after all, some of the retellings became classics in their own right, as you subtly point out, Chris :D. But what I cannot condone is the strange urge for one-upmanship with the past: the need to destroy or diminish the importance of what was before in an attempt at self-aggrandizement. It’s immature, resentful, and full of hubris 😉

          Circe’s story could have been equally important without belittling Odysseus’s story; making jerks of Hermes and Helios and a buffoon out of Glaucus. I know the popular proverb that “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” but in reality, making everyone else look bad doesn’t make one look good 😉

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  6. This was such an interesting reading! The bit about the feminist empowerment and the link with some of our modern thinking made me curious, but I am not a big fan of retelling about “real” people who I “know” because almost always this kind of retelling have the obnoxious tendency to distort quite a lot without a solid chain of thoughts and reasons behind it (like if Odysseus is the worst ever why she gave him three sons and marry one other? As you was saying before. Or once I read a book about Dracula in which he was the good guy, and he was just the GOOD guy, poor mistreated baby, plain and boring and just so distorted that it made me rage for quite a while!). I mean, the good guy is his story may as well be the villain in his enemy’s story, but it have to be thoroughly done, or I won’t be happy, and this is more easily done when the retelling is about deity or myths and not “real” people (even if the “real” part is objectionable). So I wasn’t really interested in this one, even if I have read some interesting things about it, but what you wrote confirmed that this isn’t the right reading for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Susy! 😀

      Yes, Circe had potential, but I felt the author squandered whatever good will she amassed with the early chapters when she started distorting everything in order to fit it to her refurbished, drastically altered heroine. So yes, the internal logic suffered because of that, and the whole story just lost credibility. If Miller at least showed Circe as an unreliable narrator, contrasting her story with some external facts, it would have been much more palatable and interesting – after all, Circe is a manipulative, powerful witch with a talent for words. As it is, the image of the poor mistreated baby (like your Dracula! ;)) who did bad things because she didn’t know better is not only unconvincing, but very irritating.
      I totally agree with you on retellings – they are tricky business and it’s very easy to get them wrong, particularly if the author writes them with a simplistic agenda.
      Glad I could be of help! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. S.D. McKinley

    I started reading this, I have a physical copy. It was one of those recommendations from a liberal website. Probably Gizmodo or Lifehacker or something, not quite sure. I got a fakeish vibe of it. More like the story was constructed carefully from pieces the author really wasn’t a passionate about. I don’t think it is a bad book, but it isn’t really quite my taste for rigidity in a story or authenticate passion in writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. LOL, I’m actually glad I only borrowed it from the library – though the cover is really nice 😉 I’d definitely get rid of this book if I had my own copy ;).
      The beginning is like that – carefully constructed, without much life. Still, the language is beautiful and evocative, if at times dangerously close to purplish. The story gets better later on, and then it takes a nosedive and doesn’t recover, so maybe you’re better off not finishing.

      Btw, for some reason I cannot comment on your posts through WP – and when I open your blog it doesn’t recognize me and requires me to put all my details for a comment. I wanted to thank you for the Saga shout-out! 🙂

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      1. S.D. McKinley

        Well I’m going to have to give you a good slap on the back for pointing that out to me. I was wondering what the crap was going on with zero comments in the whole three months the blog has been up. I’ll create a test account and get it fixed. I’m a tech wiz so I’m sure I can work it out. Thanks again Ola G. 😂😂

        Liked by 1 person

        1. No worries! Glad I could be of help! 😊
          Comments are the lifeblood of the whole blogging endeavor, so I can imagine how unsettling this would have been for you! Looking forward to commenting on your posts from now on! 😁

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  8. buriedinprint

    Interesting! I have read and admired Miller’s The Song of Achilles. Her prose is solid, her storytelling carefully structured, her ideas expansive. And I appreciated the way that she overturned some elements of the classic stories in that volume. But I have really hesitated in picking up Circle because I had the sense that I might find her analysis of power structrures (and re-structures?) too simplistic. It’s so frustrating to learn that someone is interested in toppling an unjust power structure (women having been short-changed in the classic stories, left out or stereotyped or belittled) only to replace it with a reversal of that power structure (all the same short-shrift now applied to the male characters). Having said that, I will probably still read this at some point, to see for myself.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Miller’s books, and Circe seemed like a good choice. But you’re right, it reads at times like a simplistic reversal of the traditional Greek Epic – a gender flip and not much more. What I felt most acutely was the somehow gossipy tone of that novel – what characters did and how they behaved was described mainly through word of mouth, and Circe’s unthinking acceptance and belief in all that was in fact a stylistic choice that turned into another gender stereotype. I’d love to see all that writing skill involved in creating something more than just a confirmation of choice prejudices.

      I’d love to read your thoughts on it if and when you’ll choose to pick it up! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

      1. buriedinprint

        Hunh, that’s really interesting. Is there any chance that the writer herself is trying to expose the dangers of this kind of polarizing power exchange, do you think? Or does it really seem to you like it’s so ingrained with the narrative that it’s the author’s creative decisions rather than the character’s behaviour and the character’s decisions? I think there was probably a time (maybe not as long ago, either, as I might like to think) when the simple reversal would have been revolutionary, and maybe it’s even a necessary step in one’s thinking in order to move to a more equitable view, but like you, I’m looking for a more complex commentary (and solution). There’s sometimes a copy on the New Books shelf at the library, and now that they’re reopen, I’ll keep an eye out for it and let you know if I snap it up.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I don’t think it was intentional, to be honest. I felt like the tarnishing of Odysseus was to the author a logical step of moving Circe’s affection from father to son. Father was defective, but son is better – that kind of thinking. I might be oversensitive here, and maybe other readers won’t even notice it – but to me, Miller chose to rewrite only those parts of myths that suited her general purpose of “de-villaining” Circe; if there are myths or just pieces of stories that make villains of other characters, she’s very happy to use them; and if there aren’t, she seems even more than happy to invent them. And really, it would be understandable to me – every first person narrative is unreliable, after all – if not for the fact that she never indicates Circe might not be entirely truthful or even right. I must admit I was let down by this very simplistic agenda.

          Well, hopefully you’ll be able to borrow it soon, because now I’m really itching to read your thoughts! 😀

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  9. I do intend to read this at some point, but, I’m definitely not an expert in Greek Mythology – in fact you could probably print what I do actually know about it onto a postage stamp – so I may enjoy this on a much more superficial level. Time will tell.
    Lynn 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You might well find it more enjoyable than I did, then! 😀 It’s not a bad book, not by a wide margin, but I’d appreciate it more if it was a bit more than just a gender-flipped power structure story. It’s really well written, that’s for sure 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  10. piotrek

    Heh, sad it turned out this way… I’m taking it off my TBR, as while I see it has its strengths, the trope, I totally agree with you on the “victim to perpetrator” trope. So overused, so cheap a solution.
    I read (well, DNF-ed) a parody of Tolkien once, where author tried to change the elves into bad guys by turning them into a combination of SS and NKVD… while not really doing anything interesting with his supposed heroes, the orcs. I really hated that… give me some depth, don;t just reverse the gears.
    “Circe” went into my TBR at the same time “The Penelopiad” did, I’m so glad I chose Atwood 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’d be foaming at the mouth reading this book 😂 so better don’t! Yeah, I agree; giving a voice to the other side doesn’t mean you need to turn the narrative 180 degrees and be content. It’s actually just perpetuating the same stereotypes, but with the opposite vector; and I think that if we want to solve our current problems of tribalism and identity politics, we really need to go beyond that.

      I’ll be reading “Penelopiad,” that’s for sure. I want to see what Atwood did with the source material, and now I’m pretty sure it won’t be worse than Miller (actually, I’m quite hopeful it will be better! :))

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Definitely one of the only if not rare reviews exposing the things that I too would’ve probably found a bit too antagonizing, especially when there’s a feminist agenda behind the story. Although my only knowledge of Circe is in Tynion IV’s Justice League Dark run, it’s nice to hear your take on it as a pretty huge connaisseur of Greek mythos. Excellent thoughts on this one, Ola. I know I’ll be careful throughout my own read of this beloved book in the future now. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Lashaan! 😊
      I’ll be very interested in your thoughts on Circe, if you ever decide to read it! I keep wondering what would be my take on this book if I didn’t have previous knowledge of Greek mythology.

      What is your favorite mythology, btw?

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      1. I grew fond of Greek mythology over the years, especially thanks for the God of War video game franchise and then became more and more curious of Norse mythos during the past years, and especially with the last God of War installment (I guess you see the trend hahaha). As a kid, I loved Egytian mythos too, but I seem to have a harder time finding solid stories, besides Riordan stuff, featuring it? And Chinese/Japanese mythology for fun too… But I guess Greek mythos tops them all if I had to pick! 😛 How about you? Unless it’s the obvious answer based on all your past reviews/scientific articles?? 😀

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Greek, Norse, Celtic and Slavic – that’s my mythological Pantheon. If I were to choose only one, I’d probably go for Greek too, though I’d actually be hard-pressed to choose, I love them all 😆 Afterwards, it’s Egyptian, Hindu, Sumerian/Babylonian and Native American, then African, South American (Mayan, Incan, though these are only inferred, since the cultures were dead and then only rediscovered) and Chinese/Japanese/Korean.

          …Now that I’ve written it down I see how I might seem rather peculiar 🤣🤣🤣

          But, if you want an absolutely amazing Egyptian- inspired story, you cannot do better than Anubis Gates by Tim Powers (I have review somewhere on the blog if you’re interested). And as for Hindu/Buddhist, go for Zelazny’s Lord of Light – one of my all-time favorites 😁

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Welp. This shows a lot of your incredible knowledge (and unquestionable interest) in theology hahah Many of your favourites (Sumerian/Babylonian, Mayan, Incan) are unknown to me, besides what pop culture tends to share with us. I do admire how intrigued you are by them all though. I still feel like I have a gazillion of things to learn and discover from Greek and Norse mythos alone hahahaha

            I have both Powers’ and Zelazny’s books on my TBR! I just need to find a copy of those and make time for them hahahah I’ll have to look up your reviews for those. Apparently you’ve reviewed a billion books by Zelazny but not Lord of Light?! How dare you hahahaha I’ll be reading the review of Anubis Gates soon though.

            By the way, have you ever done a “favourites” kind of post? I once got Bookstooge to do it and managed to add many to my own TBR and would love to be able to do the same (without necessarily making you do a post about it though hahaha)! 😛

            I mean… I already have some instant purchases thanks to you that I need to get around to, but I’m convinced that there are others that I should push higher on my TBR to gain some wisdom and try to reach your level of intellect in the process.. and in due time? 😀 😀 😀

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            1. Mythology is one of my favorite topics; for your own sake, better don’t start me on it! 😁
              Yeah, sorry 😄 I haven’t reviewed Zelazny’s Lord of Light, I’ve read it so many years before starting the blog… It was a 10/10 read for me at the time; I’m pretty sure I’d love it still after a re-read, but I don’t think I’d be able to write a good review now, after so many years, without reading it again 😉

              I wanted to do my own version of “11 books which influenced me the most” but haven’t gotten around to it yet 🙈 It’s not the same as favourites, but close. As for favourites, I’ll be slowly updating tags and adding “masterpiece” tag to my favs reviewed on the blog 🙂.

              You’re a skilled flatterer, aren’t you, Lashaan! 😆 Thank you, though – it’s always nice to hear you haven’t lost all faith in me after you realized I’m not a hundred-year-old hermit sage! 🤣🤣🤣

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  12. Sorry this wasn’t a favorite of yours! I’ve been meaning to read this one, and the mythology aspects intrigued me, but I’ll definitely take what you said into consideration before moving it up my TBR! Great review though, and I hope your next read is better!

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    1. Thank you, Allison! 🙂
      Yes, I was prepared to really like this one, and it turned into somewhat of a dud. Fortunately, I read much better books since! 😀

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  13. I do love retellings of myths, and I was inclined to be tempted by this one. Your review started out so encouragingly, but your argument against it makes too much sense to ignore. Such a good post, Ola. Perhaps this is a story you should write…

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    1. Thank you, Cath! 😀 I’m actually tempted…

      Well, it did start pretty well; and I guess a lot depends on your attitude toward myths: how much can be changed for them to still remain recognizable and acceptable?

      I like the idea to make Circe into her own person, and not just a foil/ally of Odysseus; but I don’t appreciate the vilification of Odysseus for the sake of it. Could he have been a bad person, ruthless, egotistic, with anger management issues and a chip in his shoulder? Sure. But in Greek mythology, he wasn’t 😉 I guess what I’m trying to say is that while this novel is not bad and its aim is commendable, I’d appreciate a more nuanced and less polarized portrayal of both the protagonists and the world.

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  14. Very interesting take on Circe. I didn’t remember the myths that well and I’ve always – contrary to popular opinion – believed that authors should have their creative freedom even when writing fiction inspired by real events and certainly inspired by myths. As long as they make clear the degree of creative freedom they are taking and don’t pretend to be something they are not. But I know most people feel differently about this.

    I didn’t think she painted such a bad picture of Odysseus. When on the island, I thought we saw a lot of positive sides to him and in his later life, it is made clear that Athena didn’t want him to live a quiet life and therefore encouraged some of his personality traits which may not be ideal in domestic life (but work well in war). Anyway, I am certainly no expert in Greek mythology, but I really enjoyed your post and it gave me something to think about.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! 🙂

      I see your point. Your comment made me think of my own approach to this question, so thank you 🙂 I think I agree with you; it’s just I may have a different limit of the creative freedom – I’m quite sensitive to the underlying goals of retelling, i.e. what the authors use the myths for. In some cases, I’m fine with even such outlandish retellings as Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur, which has basically nothing in common with the original stories. But Ritchie makes it clear from the very beginning that he’s telling his own story, only loosely inspired by the Arthurian mythos, and he keeps the characters’ personalities generally intact. On the other hand, Miller sticks very close to the original myths where she can; and the choices she makes when deviating from them are in my opinion very significant.

      I agree that on Aiaia Miller painted Odysseus in a more positive light; but afterwards, trying to excuse Telegonus’s patricide and Circe’s infatuation with Telemachus to make it more palatable for readers she transforms Odysseus into a horrible, vengeful tyrant, insecure and pathetic – which directly contradicts the canon. I just feel she was unfair in her treatment of different characters. She didn’t afford Odysseus (and quite many other male characters, while we’re at it, from Aeetes to Jason, Minos, Hermes to even Helios ;)) the empathy and understanding she granted Circe or Medea, Ariadne or even Pasifae, thereby rendering them in an undeservedly unfavorable light.

      Thanks for reading and commenting! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Great review. It’s one of those that make me wish I’d read the book already so I can really jump into the convo here. I do plan to read it because of the great writing. I want to read Song of Achilles first although there’s no need to do a reading order. I’ve only seen positive reviews of Circe, so yours is very different because the reviews I’ve seen hardly critique it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! 😊

      Yeah, I heard only good things about Circe before, and maybe that’s also the reason for my disappointment – I haven’t seen much criticism of this novel, and while it’s enjoyable, it is definitely not perfect. But I also tend to read quite a lot of academic research on Greek mythology, and I guess I’m used to a more nuanced view of it all than what Miller offers 🙂 I felt that her take was marked by an openly feminist agenda to subvert the epic narrative of heroes, and simultaneously very Circe-centric, very self-absorbed; as a result it turned out quite unempathetic toward others.

      I’d love to read your thoughts on it one day! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Great review. I think yours is the first review I read which is so objective and insightful. You enumerated all the reasons why I have not yet touched this book yet. Though in theory I agree about giving female characters in mythology their deserved spotlight, I still feel a little uncomfortable about all that in practice because there could be more danger in doing so than benefits. Females might have been unjustly ignored back then in these stories (were, I should say) and “vicious” males might have been praised and idolised, but this fact is also part of history and what we know as “history” or ancient folklore. I mean if we start rewriting or adding to every myth that has a “wronged” female in it, providing her point of view, what would become of the myths as they were devised such a long time ago? I also do not really want to see Odysseus as a very negative character. I loved your analysis of him not being perfect and Greek heroes being ambivalent ones – my point is that there is just something nonsensical about passing judgements, evaluations now (through revised, new or added stories, etc.) on such ancient mythology.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Diana! 😀

      Yes, exactly. I feel like we all need retellings to keep the universal message of myths relevant and comprehensible in our times – but like you I totally disagree with the notion that this need necessitates a complete rewrite, a 180 degrees turn in terms of values and worldviews. This is a double disservice – to myths, which I feel still stand tall, their message unchanged and still as intriguing and enchanting as it was ages ago, and to the readers, who are deprived of the depth and ambivalence of myths, and instead are spoon-fed an ideology or worldview which might be in vogue at the moment, but is equally far from timeless or even further than the reality of ancient myths.

      We need to understand myths, and the task of interpretation and contextualization is an important one if we don’t want to lose that link with the past. But it shouldn’t be done through a demolition of the old structures. In other words, we can put female mythological characters in spotlight without vilifying traditional male heroes. Themis, Hera, Gaia, Athena, Penelope, Ariadne, Dike, and so many others don’t need any defending, they are fully capable of doing that themselves.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Yeah I don’t know why it’s like that; there are so many great novels that never reach that level of publicity and acclaim! It’s the genre bias, I think… Literary fiction just gets better rap 😉

          Liked by 1 person

          1. The big complaint I hear mostly is that out of touch agents and what not act as the ‘gate keepers’ as far as what gets published is concerned. It’s why you get so many ‘literary novels’ that, quite frankly, spend 300 pages of pointless inner musings, 50-100 pages on plot and call it ‘excellent, character-driven fiction’. Which roughly translates to ‘yuh, uh hoy hoy,’ and other posh noises.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Love your posh noises! 😀 You should totally add “Ho, hum” to your list 😂😂
              Yeah, I can see that; as long as you can string nicely round sentences, you can write about nothing and sell it as “character-driven fiction” 😉 It’s weird when you think about the fact that apparently book reading is in decline, and yet book publishing seems in the best condition ever.

              Liked by 1 person

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