I absolutely loved The Song of Achilles. It was incredibly moving and I was surprised how much it changed my view of a hero I basically considered a tool bag (Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Firebrand may have helped shape that interpretations). I think at least part of the power was because I didn’t not expect to be so moved by a character that often could easily be reduced to warrior with a huge ego.
Circe, on the other hand, was a much slower burn. Circe is most famous for her role in The Odyssey, the sorceress that transforms men into swine, but I actually did not realize until reading this how little I was aware of her history outside of that. Probably should have done more reading on her before getting that tattoo! I liked the idea of Circe because she seems to be one of the few women in Greek mythology that gets to have sex without being defined solely as mother figure or goddess of beauty, and still gets to have some power without being put in her place (beyond Odysseus getting her to release his men). So many of the other interesting Greek goddesses or powerful women are also forced to be chaste if they want to be known as more than mothers or angry wives.
When I finished Circe, I knew I liked it but it didn’t move me to tears the same way The Song of Achilles did. It’s a quieter story about an outcast and her long life rather than an epic love affair like that of Achilles and Patroclus. However, Circe is a novel with staying power, one that sticks with the reader long after finishing it, making one realize that it had a greater impact than originally realized upon reading it.
Though Circe is the eldest child of her parents’ union (her father being a god, she is far from his first child), she is treated the red headed step child, less accomplished, less beautiful, less interesting than her siblings. Her two middle siblings are cruel and beautiful, comfortable in their power as divine beings, and though she bonds with her youngest, as an adult, she realizes that she may have put more weight on their relationship than he ever did.
All three of Circe’s siblings have magical powers, though Circe does not realize this until she discovers her own in a rather dramatic fashion. A bit of a late bloomer, this may also be because she is the kindest of her siblings and the least concerned with power, not discovering her abilities until motivated by emotional reasons.
Exiled to her island Aiaia, her life interweaves with many of the great heroes and legends of the time, often in ways she cannot control. In some ways, she is like Cassandra, realizing and knowing things about her visitors, only to be ignored because of what they consider her pathetic state. She has some interactions with men, and those that make the greatest impact on her are both favorites of Athena. In many ways, she sees in Odysseus a kindred spirit, and after his departure, she does not settle back into her old routines.
Circe has done bad things, and some of her actions have had unforeseen consequences that she truly regrets, plaguing her with guilt. Despite this, she is more ethical than many of those around her, not having the same hubris and pride of other gods, who view humans as mere playthings, and their misery as a means to increase human devotion and worship. The main reason Circe is exiled is less related to what she has done and more because the gods fear her potential power, and she made the mistake of being vocal about abilities compared to her more secretive and manipulative siblings.
Madeline Miller wrote an amazing debut novel so I can’t imagine how difficult it was for her to write a follow up given the expectations she must have faced. Like the previous one, this one is beautifully and intricately plotted, providing voice to a character usually only viewed through others. While Patroclus died young after experiencing a passionate love, Circe spends much of her immortal life span alone and lonely, showing up at important points in Greek mythology but barely living for much of it. However, though her life could easily veer into the tragic, the novel has an open but hopeful ending, allowing the reader to imagine what happens based on who they believe Circe is and what she deserves.