I picked this up because I was seeing it evvvvverywherrrre. I had low expectations because I am a contrarian and, in general, I don’t trust people’s opinions of books (except for Pajiba readers’, of course.) But this book was so good! It immediately became my new buy-it-for-everybody’s-birthday book.
First, this book has it all: mythology, complex heroines, curses, potions, love, betrayal, exotic lands, gods and humans, bloodshed, magic, and monsters. It also has an awesome female protagonist, “empowered” in the best way, by which I mean she has agency in the narrative itself, and in the very fact that Miller has chosen to tell her story.
The only thing I knew at all about Circe before picking this up was something about how she was a goddess maybe on an island or something? I had only the vaguest knowledge of her role in Greek mythology. And I suspect that’s why Miller chose her to write about – this is a goddess whose story has been boiled down to be, effectively, a supporting character for the Manly Men – Odysseus and Jason and Helios. Her Wikipedia page goes: “She is a daughter of the god Helios and either the Oceanid nymph Perse or the goddess Hecate. Circe was renowned for her vast knowledge of potions and herbs. Through the use of these and a magic wand or staff, she would transform her enemies, or those who offended her, into animals.” Gradually, Circe became, “the archetype of the predatory female…and as a type of the sexually free woman.” Unsurprisingly, Circe’s reputation is marred some more by later texts: her potions are “distilled of death and shame’ and she’s a threat to manhood and righteousness, etc, etc, you know the drill.
It felt like Miller took this and thought, ok, but what’s the real story here? Why would a woman turn men into animals? Why would a goddess abandon her divinity? Why does she even need potions in the first place? What would a goddess-witch do on an island by herself? What gives with Odysseus anyway?
And the answers to those questions became this book. It’s so clever, and also so obvious–which is why it’s so clever! I mean, if you were a solo woman on an island and bands of sailors landed on your shores, hungry and barbaric, what could possibly make you turn them into animals? Women, amirite?! It’s just a mystery! I mean, sailors are known for being totally gentlemanly and also 100% respectful of consent…oh wait.
In addition to fleshing out Circe’s narrative and giving her a coherent, beautiful voice, Miller also ties in the more well-known stories from Greek mythology: the Minotaur, Icarus, Prometheus. But in this book, they are the supporting characters, and Circe’s is the heroine. I loved happening upon these well-known stories throughout the book, especially when they were basically a footnote in Circe’s life: she hears about stories, or sometimes witnesses them in person, but only in part, hearing about the conclusion (the conclusion that we, the readers, know is coming) later. The story feels turned on its head. It’s wonderful, and compelling.
There are so many other ways this book stuck with me. The way Circe becomes a witch, a mother, a lover, the way she deals with trauma and the way she grows, slowly, out of her naivete, and the way it all leads, inevitably to her decisions in the last chapter. I loved it all.