‘Circe’ by Madeline Miller

Mount Readmore Book Review 2018, 137/200


Audiobook Edition

Finished on 9/11/2018


Genres: Fantasy, Mythology, Greek Myths, Retellings, Historical Fiction, Literari Fantasy, Fantasy Classic

From Nobody to Nightmare: Greek Myth edition

Spoiler-ific review

I’m reading this (really, really late) as a part of the Sword and Laser Book Club.

Wow. Just wow. After the disappointment of THE SECRET HISTORY, this book was the polar opposite in terms of excellence across the board. If this doesn’t get at least a few awards nods I don’t know what’s wrong with the world. This is definitely in my top 5 books I’ve ever read. I can’t help but Highly Recommend this book, especially the audiobook. The audiobook narrator took a home run of a book and knocked it out of the park.

Ooph. How do I even go about this review? This book is so good that even trying to summarize it does it a disservice. I guess I’ll start here: this book has it all. It has strong characterization. It has a strong plot. It has strong pacing. It has strong setting. It gets it’s mythology (mostly) right. The prose is strong.

This is Circe’s book, so I’ll start with characterization. This is the story of the Greek nymph Circe, the meek little daughter of Helios. Constantly trod upon by literally everyone from the heights of Olympus to the depths of Tartarus, Circe is the ugly duckling daughter who her family scorns. But after she briefly speaks with the titan Prometeus she realizes that her life sucks and her family are a bunch of assholes. She starts to think, wondering what life is like beyond her father’s palace. She ventures forth when no one’s looking (and no one ever bothers to look for her because she’s basically useless in their eyes) and meets her first mortal and first love, Glaucus.

Circe starts the novel a wide-eyed ingenue, but over it’s course she transforms from an innocent who everyone underestimates to a powerful and hardened rival of the Titans and Olympians. This change is a gradual one, occurring slowly as a result of choices she’s forced to make to protect herself and her loved ones from the uncaring Olympians. I loved reading her transformation because her power isn’t one of battlefields and warfare, but of motherhood and the chthonic forces of the earth. We see her grow in maturity and wisdom at the same time.

The plot was excellent. The author knitted together all the myths Circe is associated with to form a mostly cohesive whole. As one would expect this mythological combo platter makes the book overall feel a little episodic, with one episode per myth. This gave the book a good texture, and made it feel as though centuries were passing (which was good given the immortal protagonist). This passage of time really played up the whole mortality angle of the main mortal characters who were featured as they withered and died and were forgotten over the course of a few paragraphs, amplifying the sense of Circe’s loneliness.

The pacing was good. Above I mentioned the episodic nature of this book; I found this worked well. It broke up the book into digestible chunks with defined plot and character arcs. This kept the story and narrative moving at a harmonious clip.

The setting of ancient Greece was excellent, and the author did her research fairly well. I noticed one or two mythological ‘inaccuracies,’ but by and large the author did a good job being faithful to the source material while still providing new content.

And finally the prose was a joy to read. The author used honey-sweet language to make the story as vivid as imaginable.

But nothing’s perfect, not even this. Here’s some constructive criticism.

The other gods and titans were all slightly flat. They were all assholes, except for Prometheus but he had only about five lines of dialog so he hardly counts. The fact that literally none of the major non-Circe gods gave a shit about being ‘good people’ was super repetitive and made them blend into one another. The author  makes it clear that the gods are culturally a bunch of jerks, but never explains why that is their culture. Well, I wanted to know why. Some of the characters had some depth (like Circe’s sister Pasiphae), but even she was monotonously evil.

Also, I didn’t like the last 10% or so of the book. Major spoiler alert: the author took some liberties with the source material which I didn’t really like.

I don’t really like how she portrayed Penelope and Odysseus. According to the author, Odysseus becomes a hotheaded, conspiratorial fool later in life (which seems out of character given the entire ODYSSEY pushing him in the opposite direction), while Penelope becomes Circe’s witch student. I’ve grown up with these characters, and these portrayals seem false.

Next, Circe got into a tryst with Telemachus, the son of Odysseus. You know, Odysseus, the man Circe was banging a couple pages earlier in the book? Also she’s having sex with Telemachus basically under the nose of Penelope, Telemachus’ mother. I thought it was icky.

That said, I really like the end of the book. Circe, who has empathized more with mortals than gods, finally opts to use magic to become mortal and spend the rest of her life with Telemachus. It was an excellent way to conclude the character. While I don’t agree with the author’s choice to have Circe get married to Telemachus, I think she nonetheless handled even that relationship very well.

This was an overall extremely solid book, with high highs and almost no lows. I do not think this book stands really well on it’s own; you need to have at least a cursory understanding of Greek myths (if nothing else, just read Circe’s Wikipedia Page.) Will this stand the test of time and become an instant classic in the genre? It just might.


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