book review: circe

CIRCE by Madeline Miller
Lee Boudreaux Books, 352 pp.
Published April 10, 2018

DISCLAIMER: I received a free physical ARC of this book from Lee Boudreaux Books in exchange for an honest review.

Summary (via Goodreads): In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child--not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power--the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.

Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.

But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

With unforgettably vivid characters, mesmerizing language and page-turning suspense, Circe is a triumph of storytelling, an intoxicating epic of family rivalry, palace intrigue, love and loss, as well as a celebration of indomitable female strength in a man's world.

To all of the readers sick of so-called 'average' and 'unremarkable' female protagonists who miraculously discover their latent strengths—this book is for you. CIRCE upends the irksome preponderance of women in literature who, through an accident of fate, come into their true power. There can be no growth without hardship, and the half-nymph, half-Titan Circe endures far more of it than she rightly deserves. Yet each slight nudges her towards destiny, a journey that is shaped by the actions of powerful men (and women) but ultimately not dictated by them. It's a distinction all the more important for its nuance; as Circe grows and learns, she shifts from a reactive role to the proactive one a protagonist deserves. Miller addresses this absurd notion of making women powerless herself, through the witch's voice:

Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.

CIRCE is instead the story of one women shattering that tired trope, defying gods old, new, and ancient in search of her rightful place in the world. Several other women strive for the same freedom along the margins of Circe's tale: her sister Pasiphaë, beautiful and cruel, given in marriage to King Minos of Crete; Penelope, the faithful wife of wayward soldier Odysseus; her niece Medea, who helped Jason and his Argonauts steal the golden fleece from her once-loved brother, Aeëtes. Each struggles against her bonds differently, their rage, patience, and naiveté all recognizable to today's young women.

The men are no less colorfully realized, though always observed through the context of Circe's experience. Her brothers and father—Helios, the Titan and sun god—view her as worthless, while a brief meeting with Prometheus in her adolescence helps lessen the sting of their disapproval and significantly influences later events. A string of lovers taken during her exile further develop Circe's sense of self and personal valuation. These later relationships do not dictate who she is; rather, each interaction provides experiences and emotions for the isolated Circe to look back on, interpret, and move forward from. It's both astonishing and delightful how, in a cast heavily populated with men, she cultivates the strength of character to consign all of them to supporting roles.

Miller's prose once again soars in service to the familiar myths. She ventures where the ancient poets did not, finding the blood and gristle beneath the smooth, polished skin of their verses. The untouchable world of immortals and demi-gods often feels close, accessible even, until a moment of shocking cruelty or violence dispels the notion. Many names and places will feel familiar enough that you might find yourself unwittingly skimming ahead: don't. Circe's voice carries a dry wit and aching vulnerability that leaves each sentence ripe with possibility.

A sagging pace in the novel's final section, after Odysseus' arrival on Aiaia, is all that kept CIRCE from achieving a five-star rating for me. Even in the Iliad I found him somewhat boring; constrained by the tales that came before, he only has so much room to move here, though Circe's view of him adds what depth it can. While it does regain much of that lost momentum in the final pages, for a handful of chapters I found my mind starting to wander. But when compared to the rest of the novel that lag amounts to a minor quibble, nothing more. CIRCE distinguishes itself as a triumphant sophomore effort by Miller, a fervent affirmation of feminine fortitude and strength that echoes down across the centuries.

RATING: ★★★★

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