By: Madeline Miller
Publisher: Lee Bourdreaux Books
Publication Date: April 10th 2018
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.
I’m sure I’m not the only YA reader who is also a mythology geek, which is what first drew me to Circe. The other thing is how much hype it got, particularly from my favorite authors. My friend and I almost fought over the last copy in our local bookstore, and when she won I immediately ordered another copy from them. Although she ended up being kind of meh about it, I deeply enjoyed it.
This is NOT actually a YA book, and there ARE scenes of sexual assault and rape.
That being said, I thought that this book was a very thoughtful look at growing up, the struggle of being a woman in a man’s world and an outsider looking in, and what it means to be human. Circe is, of course, not human–for the non-mythology nerds she’s the child of a titan and a nymph, who was imprisoned on an island. She plays a role in the Odyssey, which we’ll get to in a bit. But from some of the first pages I appreciated her voice and the way that she examines humanity through her own lens and experiences.
My friend couldn’t get into the book mainly because of the first section–she didn’t like how bratty Circe was, which I definitely understand. The tale of her growing up with all of the gods/titans/nymphs feeling like she’s an overlooked outsider was a little difficult to get through, although her meeting with Prometheus was almost worth reading the rest of it. I have to admit that I skimmed the section of her falling in love with a mortal (Glaucos) and then transforming Scylla into the monster of Homeric legend. But things picked up a little when she was sent to her island and the real story seemed to start.
The plot is slow, meandering–it’s not fast-paced, but I enjoyed it. Especially since Circe seemed to be measuring things in decades rather than years, it felt somewhat fitting. I liked how there was a rhythm, of her story of the island broken up by her intrusion into other greek myths. It worked well–to have us suddenly rush off to Minos, and then back, or encounter Medea, who then leaves. I also like how every encounter propels Circe into a slow, but deeper understanding of women, inequality and the nature of power. The Minotaur, who is technically her nephew, is spawned by Circe’s sister–as a result of her cheating husband and the need to wield a sort of power over him, or at least keep the place she wanted in the world. I thought Pasiphae was a fascinating character–the archetypal ‘mean girl’ who feels powerless, and thus as if she has to take power in turn. Circe’s encounter with Daedalus was also really interesting, how it examined his enslavement and his reaction to it.
I also liked how Circe really did change over the course of the book–she goes from echoing the cruelty of the gods to finding solace in her island, to understanding her entrapment and powerlessness (in more ways than one), to seeing that she has the means to change her fate. One of the fascinating things is the way that Circe is constantly adjusting her worldview in reaction to things around her. For instance, her tendency to turn waylaid sailors into pigs is brought about by the rape she experiences at the hands of one waylaid sailor. But then Odysseus comes to her island and shows her that not every man is a ‘pig’, and by example allows her to regain her faith in humanity. Granted, I think what I liked the most is not necessarily that Odysseus ‘reforms’ her, but that her rape isn’t the formative experience that forces her to mature. (I am quite honestly so tired of that trope). No, what instead becomes Circe’s formative experience is her pregnancy by Odysseus and her subsequent motherhood. Although I have never been pregnant, the way her world suddenly changes sounded authentic–and I really liked that what changed her life was not the act of destruction (rape), but of creation (childbirth). But, that being said, by far the best turning point of the book is when Circe FINALLY stops just reacting to things around her and starts acting on her own volition–when she takes charge of her own fate, at least as much as she can.
I honestly think one of the biggest things that separates YA from Adult fiction isn’t the inclusion/exclusion of sex, or youthful characters, but more just a different lens. YA is always written with the immediacy and passion of a teenager first learning about romance or first discovering the world–the adult fiction I’ve encountered is more like someone looking back on their life and examining it. Circe is more the latter–but I also want to emphasize that in her own way, her story is as much of a bildungsroman as any YA book. Although she mentions that her childhood passes by in a matter of hours, it takes her decades, if not centuries, to truly mature into the best version of herself. And this is also a valuable lesson for adults: we’re not magically who we’re meant to be at eighteen, or twenty-one, or whenever you consider yourself an adult. We are always going to be changing, and we should always strive to be changing into the best version of ourselves.
Disclaimer: The synopsis and cover picture were pulled from the book’s Goodreads page. Neither belong to us.