Book Review : Circe

Book Review : CirceCirce by Madeline Miller
on April 10th 2018
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Ancient, Classics, Literary, War & Military
Pages: 400
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"A bold and subversive retelling of the goddess's story," this #1 New York Times bestseller is "both epic and intimate in its scope, recasting the most infamous female figure from the Odyssey as a hero in her own right" (Alexandra Alter, The New York Times).
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.

I had certain expectations going into Circe, a novel about the legendary exiled Greek Goddess and witch who turned men into pigs, had the voice of a mortal, and lived with tamed lions and wolves. I pictured a wrathful goddess who suffered no fools through her powerful witchcraft. Instead, Circe offers a rejected and insecure goddess who is not like the others, and plops her on an island to live by herself for all eternity. The majority of the novel is utterly boring.


At first, I found Circe to be rather interesting. But that was solely limited to about the first quarter of the novel, if I’m being generous, before Circe gets exiled, and still lives among the other gods and goddesses. Too bad that these other immortal beings are absolutely awful in every way, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Though it’s hard not to be reviled by the abhorrent behavior of these deities, at least their often bewildering fiascos and schemes are entertaining. At the end of the novel, author Madeline Miller remarked the following on her portrayal of gods:


For me, the Greek gods reflect what happens to humans when we see only ourselves and our own needs. The great gods have such infinite power and resources that they have forgotten what it’s like to want, to suffer, to show empathy, to face all of life’s minor inconveniences. They have forgotten what it’s like to be told no, and it has turned them into monsters, obsessed with dominance and hierarchy, always trying to claw a little higher. The frightening thing is how real this phenomenon is. I see the gods as a cautionary tale.


Though I am used to the capriciousness of the gods in Greek Mythology, Miller’s portrayal of the gods, without any merits whatsoever, was depressing to me. We witness Athena driving Odysseus into the ground with her divine inspiration for the glory of battle, Hermes’s gossip-mongering and meddling manipulating others to make poor life choices, and so and so forth. Every story of the classic gods and their chosen mortals in Circe is a story of tragedy, with no quarter or silver lining. There are no clever mortals tricking the gods or goddesses, or any members of the Greek Pantheon rewarding independence and ingenuity from their blessed mortals. It’s depressing to read. 


This is a narrative choice that I feel Miller made in order to drive home her point of how Circe was different, and not like the other gods and goddesses. With all the gods being callous to the life spans and goals of their mortals, Miller’s Circe can’t help but to look more sympathetic to the mortals in comparison. However, her bonds to the mortals she meets never feel anything but surface level to me, as like the other gods, her relationships with mortals are all selfish—they are rooted in her desperate need for validation, companionship, or some other kind of belonging. However, though the synopsis of the book asks the question of where Circe belongs, with gods, or mortals, the answer is that she doesn’t truly belong anywhere, except exiled on her island.


As the gods and goddesses have exiled her there, she simply can’t leave. Literally, all readers are offered is a daily life of Circe on her island living alone and feeling sorry for herself. She gathers herbs, she pets her animals, she bemoans her fate, and then does it all again the next day. Sure, there are small breaks in the mind-numbing monotony, but these are only relegated to when she sleeps with some random visiting mortal or god, but that’s it. 


To me, it is not feminist in the least that the only break in the humdrum of a woman’s life is when a man appears. I think her sexual intimacy with multiple male characters is supposed to be feminist and to make Circe seem independent, wise, and confident in what she wants, but really, she’s just a product of growing up among the Greek pantheon, who we are shown multiple times in Circe to have absolutely no qualms about screwing anything and everything, including literal cows, if it serves their purpose or merely strikes their fancy. And also, the poor exiled creature is basically a poor woman starving for any kind of interaction (though she for some reason hates the wayward and unwanted nymphs the Gods have sent to her island as punishment, which struck me as odd and extremely hypocritical), and is not at all the feared and wicked sorceress of legend. 


What’s worse, is that any time Circe does anything remotely cool, such as turning men into pigs, it’s in reaction to some wrong that befell her. In one scene in the book, I was completely unable to suspend my disbelief that a Greek goddess and notoriously powerful witch View Spoiler »


Frankly, these events just didn’t make any logical sense to me, as the character is View Spoiler » This is not empowering in any way. In fact, it feels that the character has absolutely no agency of her own, simply reacting to the insatiable and grasping gods who want something from her, or greedy men who randomly trespass. 


To be honest, I fell asleep reading this novel many times and I never wanted to pick it up. It was an exercise in willpower to even finish Circe and I can’t really say that I was glad that I pushed through this novel. I didn’t care for the ending either, which to me, felt like a betrayal and disappointment of everything Circe worked towards as a witch in exile. I didn’t find this novel to be empowering or feminist in the least, and didn’t care for the portrayal of any of the famed characters from Greek Mythology, whether god or mortal. Ultimately, I honestly don’t see what everyone found so mind-blowing about a sad woman living alone on an island View Spoiler », despite the fact that she spends most of her time turning these same mortals into pigs. To me, this was not a story of a powerful goddess finding she prefers life with mortals, or that she wishes to have her own adventures View Spoiler », but of a woman giving up what little power she had managed to grasp for herself.


Circe is definitely a character driven book, which is something I love, when I actually like the character. There is very little plot to the novel at all, with the novel also moving at a snail’s pace. This novel could have honestly been edited to a quarter of its total length, as so little happens in most of it. I also found the themes of Circe to be largely confused. Though Circe wants to be a feminist novel that shows a goddess finding her true belonging among mortals, the novel doesn’t succeed at showing either of these things. Circe, in it’s most basic form is a novel about a lonely goddess, who is not like the others, who becomes super powerful against all odds, and then, View Spoiler » Circe is not a triumph of feminism or even of storytelling, it is quite simply, a Greek tragedy, and a prolonged one at that.


Book Review : Circe - Blogging with Dragons

Posted June 10, 2022 in Book Reviews, Fantasy, Historical Fiction

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4 responses to “Book Review : Circe

  1. I didn’t mind Miller’s perspective of the gods, however, everything else you’ve said I 100% agree with and honestly, it’s a relief to see someone else put into words the feeling I got from this book. Like yourself I went into it with certain expectations, and I was very surprised when I read it. I definitely did not find the strong female character that reviews shouted about.

    • Thank you for your comment, Heather! This book has so many glowing reviews and awards that it’s hard not to feel like there’s something wrong with me.? I’m sorry you found it disappointing as well, but also thankful someone else understands where I’m coming from!

  2. Matt

    I am a man. Admittedly, I probably don’t know what it means to be a “feminist book” beyond what those conjure at face value. However, your critique of this book is completely wrong. Circe was a bad-ass! This book was not slow at all. In fact I felt like the pace was great. The detail and description was appropriate. Before reading this book I wondered how on Earth anyone could turn the tales of the rediculous and disfunctional Greek Gods into anything that I could take serious. Madeline Miller nailed it. This book was a blast to read. Sorry it dint meet your expectations of what a feminist book should be…

    • Glad you enjoyed the book and that it worked for you. I personally preferred “Song of Achilles” by Madeline Miller to “Circe.”

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