The BookBrowse Review

Published December 5, 2018

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Circe
Circe
by Madeline Miller

Hardcover (10 Apr 2018), 400 pages.
(Due out in paperback Feb 2019)
Publisher: Little Brown & Company
ISBN-13: 9780316556347
BookBrowse:
Critics:
  

Winner of the 2018 BookBrowse Fiction Award

The daring, dazzling and highly anticipated follow-up to the New York Times bestseller The Song of Achilles.


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.

NPR's Weekend Edition "Books To Look Forward To In 2018"
Esquire's "The 27 Most Anticipated Books of 2018"
Boston Globe's "25 books we can't wait to read in 2018"
The Millions "The Most Anticipated: The Great 2018 Book Preview"
Cosmopolitan's "33 Books to Get Excited About in 2018"

CHAPTER ONE

WHEN I WAS BORN, the name for what I was did not exist. They called me nymph, assuming I would be like my mother and aunts and thousand cousins. Least of the lesser goddesses, our powers were so modest they could scarcely ensure our eternities. We spoke to fish and nurtured flowers, coaxed drops from the clouds or salt from the waves. That word, nymph, paced out the length and breadth of our futures. In our language, it means not just goddess, but bride.

My mother was one of them, a naiad, guardian of fountains and streams. She caught my father's eye when he came to visit the halls of her own father, Oceanos. Helios and Oceanos were often at each other's tables in those days. They were cousins, and equal in age, though they did not look it. My father glowed bright as just-forged bronze, while Oceanos had been born with rheumy eyes and a white beard to his lap. Yet they were both Titans, and preferred each other's company to those new-squeaking gods upon Olympus who had not seen the making of the world.

Oceanos' palace was a great wonder, set deep in the earth's rock. Its high-arched halls were gilded, the stone floors smoothed by centuries of divine feet. Through every room ran the faint sound of Oceanos' river, source of the world's fresh waters, so dark you could not tell where it ended and the rock-bed began. On its banks grew grass and soft gray flowers, and also the unnumbered children of Oceanos, naiads and nymphs and river-gods. Otter-sleek, laughing, their faces bright against the dusky air, they passed golden goblets among themselves and wrestled, playing games of love. In their midst, outshining all that lily beauty, sat my mother.

Her hair was a warm brown, each strand so lustrous it seemed lit from within. She would have felt my father's gaze, hot as gusts from a bonfire. I see her arrange her dress so it drapes just so over her shoul- ders. I see her dab her fingers, glinting, in the water. I have seen her do a thousand such tricks a thousand times. My father always fell for them. He believed the world's natural order was to please him.

"Who is that?" my father said to Oceanos.

Oceanos had many golden-eyed grandchildren from my father al- ready, and was glad to think of more. "My daughter Perse. She is yours if you want her."

The next day, my father found her by her fountain-pool in the upper world. It was a beautiful place, crowded with fat-headed nar- cissus, woven over with oak branches. There was no muck, no slimy frogs, only clean, round stones giving way to grass. Even my father, who cared nothing for the subtleties of nymph arts, admired it.

My mother knew he was coming. Frail she was, but crafty, with a mind like a spike-toothed eel. She saw where the path to power lay for such as her, and it was not in bastards and riverbank tumbles. When he stood before her, arrayed in his glory, she laughed at him. Lie with you? Why should I?

My father, of course, might have taken what he wanted. But Helios flattered himself that all women went eager to his bed, slave girls and divinities alike. His altars smoked with the proof, offerings from big-bellied mothers and happy by-blows.

"It is marriage," she said to him, "or nothing. And if it is marriage, be sure: you may have what girls you like in the field, but you will bring none home, for only I will hold sway in your halls."

Conditions, constrainment. These were novelties to my father, and gods love nothing more than novelty. "A bargain," he said, and gave her a necklace to seal it, one of his own making, strung with beads of rarest amber. Later, when I was born, he gave her a second strand, and another for each of my three siblings. I do not know which she treasured more: the luminous beads themselves or the envy of her sisters when she wore them. I think she would have gone right on collecting them into eternity until they hung from her neck like a yoke on an ox if the high gods had not stopped her. By then they had learned what the four of us were. You may have other children, they told her, only not with him. But other husbands did not give amber beads. It was the only time I ever saw her weep.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from CirceCopyright © 2018 by Madeline Miller. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.

Madeline Miller follows up her prize-winning debut, Song of Achilles, with another dazzling Greek myth retelling that explores femininity and self-determinism through the lesser known figure of Circe the nymph.

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Voted 2018 Best Fiction Award Winner by BookBrowse Subscribers

Towards the end of Madeline Miller's novel Circe, the titular nymph is questioned by her son about her life that has already spanned some thousand years. The teenaged Telegonus can hardly hide his astonishment upon discovering that his seemingly low-key mother, whom he has lived alone with for sixteen uneventful years on the secluded island of Aeaea, is related to illustrious gods and mighty Titans, and has been acquainted with already legendary figures in Greece's nascent history. "'Mother! You must tell me everything,'" he pleads.

Yet far from being flattered by this newfound interest in her marginal existence, Circe is almost resentful and retreats from this rare opportunity to shine: "My past was not some game, some adventure tale. It was the ugly wrack that storms left rotten on the shore."

It is a curious, somewhat unfair admission that exposes the mindset of this female divinity. Despite the mythic moments she was witness to and participated in, including being present for the punishment of Prometheus and daring to be the only one of all the gods to secretly offer the wounded Titan a merciful drink to ease his pain, Circe feels she administers no particular control over her destiny, she has no pride in her story. But make no mistake. Her tales are of similar stock to those other gods would eagerly rhapsodize over.

Circe's self-deprecation stems from a lifetime of being used, abused and belittled by gods and mortals alike. From birth, she is quick to realize that regardless of her divine heritage, she is little more than an inconsequence. Her mother, the nymph Perse, wrinkles her nose at her newly born daughter's sex. Pasiphaë, her glory-seeking sister, treats her as a constant object of derision to taunt and mock. And in her adolescence, her sun god father Helios declares his daughter to be "the worst of my children, faded and broken, whom I cannot pay a husband to take."

Rejected, Circe finds solace in sorcery. She learns the power of herbs and potions and begins to surreptitiously use her newfangled witchcraft to self-serving advantage. She gifts her first love, the fisherman Glaucus, with divinity and turns a rival to her beau's affections into a grotesque six-headed sea monster. But even these impressive magical feats are not enough to garner Circe any particular prestige. Her own father dismisses these transformations as instances of fate that Circe was coincidentally spectator to and had no active hand in invoking. Circe soon begins to understand that her marginality is less to do with the fact that she is a nymph, "least of the lesser goddesses," than that she is a woman. This becomes especially apparent when, exiled on Aeaea, Circe offers drowning wayward sailors refuge in her home. Time and time again the sailors turn on their solitary hostess. Even displaying her divinity makes no difference: "I was alone and a woman, that was all that mattered." Her solution is to turn these lustful debauched men into swine.

Much of Circe is an exploration into what it means to be female in a world of men and monsters. While it is usually tenuous to compare an author's latest novel to previous work, it does feel as if Miller wrote Circe as a conscious inversion of her prize-winning debut The Song of Achilles in nearly every aspect. The pool of inspiration may be the same – primarily Homer's epics – but whereas Achilles was very much a book about mortal men coming to grips with their own version of masculinity, Circe is about a divine woman trying to consolidate her myriad feminine identities as daughter, sister, lover, mother, witch, and goddess.

Even the narrative frames in each of Miller's binary novels take on quasi-gendered forms. In Achilles the story arc is as steady and as unwavering as the trajectory of the sun. From the start the reader knows more or less where the tale will set. In Circe there's a fluidity to plot and narrative that is similar to the tides that surround the nymph's adopted home island. Characters come and go. Those well-versed in Greek myth will particularly delight in cameos from Jason of Argonauts fame, Minos and his namesake Minotaur, and Daedalus, father of that cautionary figure Icarus. That said, Miller provides plenty background for even those unfamiliar with Greek mythology to enjoy her adaptations of these classic myths.

By the end of her transformative tale, Circe comes to realize that she has far more control and power over her destiny than she was initially led to believe. Graceful and majestic in equal measures, Circe is sure to leave an indelible impression on readers both new and returning to Miller's singular reworkings of Greek myths.

Reviewed by Dean Muscat

Alex Preston, The Guardian
Miller has made a collage out of a variety of source materials – from Ovid to Homer to another lost epic, the Telegony – but the guiding instinct here is to re-present the classics from the perspective of the women involved in them, and to do so in a way that makes these age-old texts thrum with contemporary relevance. If you read this book expecting a masterpiece to rival the originals, you’ll be disappointed; Circe is, instead, a romp, an airy delight, a novel to be gobbled greedily in a single sitting.

Booklist
This immersive blend of literary fiction and mythological fantasy demonstrates that the Greek myths are still very relevant today.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Weaving together Homer's tale with other sources, Miller crafts a classic story of female empowerment. She paints an uncompromising portrait of a superheroine who learns to wield divine power while coming to understand what it means to be mortal.

Kirkus
Starred Review. Exhilarating ... Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

School Library Journal
Starred Review. This absorbing and atmospheric read will appeal to lovers of Greek mythology.

Author Blurb Ann Patchett, author of Commonwealth
An epic spanning thousands of years that's also a keep-you-up-all-night page turner.

Author Blurb Margaret George, author of The Confessions of Young Nero
With lyric beauty of language and melancholy evocative of Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn", Circe asks all the big questions of existence while framing them in the life story of the famous goddess who had the magic of transformations...This is as close as you will ever come to entering the world of mythology as a participant. Stunning, touching, and unique.

Author Blurb Affinity Konar, author of Mischling
Circe bears its own transformative magic, a power enabled by Miller's keen eye for beauty, adventure, and reinvention. Through the charms of a misfit heroine, the world of gods becomes stunningly alive, and the world of our own humanity - its questions, loves, and bonds - is illuminated. This book is an immense gift to anyone who reads to find their own bravery and quest.

Author Blurb Helen Simonson, author of The Summer Before the War and Major Pettigrew's Last Stand
Madeline Miller, master storyteller, conjures Circe glowing and alive - and makes the Gods, nymphs and heroes of ancient Greece walk forth in all their armored splendor. Richly detailed and written with such breathtaking command of story, you will be held enchanted. A breathtaking novel.

Author Blurb Eimear McBride, author of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing
Circe is the utterly captivating, exquisitely written, story of an ordinary, and extraordinary, woman's life.

Author Blurb Mary Doria Russell, author of Epitaph
Written with power and grace, this enchanting, startling, gripping story casts a spell as strong and magical as any created by the sorceress Circe.

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Nymphs in Greek Mythology

Circe, the nymphThe nature of nymphs, the "least of the lesser goddesses," as they are referred to in Circe, is central to the novel. Circe, herself a sorceress or witch nymph, is most famous for turning Odysseus' crew into wild pigs and later becoming the hero's lover and adviser. In Greek mythology, nymphs are female spirits associated with the natural world. There are various kinds of nymphs presiding over all aspects of nature such as the Naiads and Oceanids of the waters and the Dryads of the forests. There are even breeze and star nymphs such as the Aurae and Asteriae.

The nymphs are rarely central protagonists of myths and are more generally seen to be companions to the Olympians. As an infant, Zeus himself was protected and nursed by the nymphs of Mount Ida, Adrasteia and Ida. The head Olympian later rewarded his childhood minders by turning them into the constellations Ursa Major and Minor. The goddess of hunting, Artemis, was accompanied by faithful huntress nymphs. Similarly, the Lampads were the torch-bearing nymph companions of the Underworld goddess Hecate, given to her as a gift from Zeus for her loyalty to him in the Titanomachy, the epic battle between the Titans and Olympians for control of the cosmos. However, there are a few legends where nymphs feature more prominently.

As mother to Achilles, regarded as the greatest of warriors in the Trojan War, the goddess of water Thetis is one of the most popular nymphs in the Greek mythos. This sea nymph's story is particularly noteworthy for how she was forced into marriage by the mortal Peleus. After the death of his wife Antigone, the sea-god Proteus advised Peleus to take Thetis as his new bride. Knowing she wouldn't accept, Proteus told Peleus to bind Thetis while she was asleep in order to stop her from changing form and thereby escaping. Realizing she was trapped, Thetis violently shape-shifted into flame, water, a lioness and serpent, but Peleus held tight and managed to overpower her. Once calm, Thetis agreed to marry Peleus. Their marriage produced seven sons in total, six of whom died in infancy. Achilles was the only one to survive and, in an attempt to make her beloved son invincible, Thetis is said to have dipped him into the River Styx by holding him by the heel, the sole part of his body that remained vulnerable and would ultimately lead to his downfall. It's what gives us the expression, "Achilles heel."

While Scylla is more commonly known as the terrifying multi-headed sea monster from Homer's Odyssey, later interpretations of her origin story revealed that this ugly abomination was initially a beautiful nymph. As told in Ovid's Metamorphosis — the tale which is adapted by Miller in Circe with slight variations — Scylla's story is a love triangle with Glaucus and Circe. While the fisherman-turned-god Glaucus was enamored with Scylla, the nymph felt repulsed by him and fled from his sight. In an attempt to win her affections, Glaucus sought help from the witch Circe, asking her to produce a love potion for him to win Scylla's heart. In a twist of fate, Circe herself became infatuated with Glaucus. But upon realizing she held no sway over him, Circe became bitterly jealous. She concocted a poison which she poured into Scylla's pool of water, transforming the maiden into the legendary monstrosity who attacked ships and sailors passing through her channel of water.

Picture of statue of Circe at Versaiiles by Laurent Magnier and Vincent Torri

By Dean Muscat

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