book review: Circe by Madeline Miller

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CIRCE by Madeline Miller
★★★☆☆
Little Brown and Co, April 10, 2018

Like so many other readers, I was a huge fan of Madeline Miller’s debut The Song of Achilles. I wouldn’t call it a flawless piece of literature or even a flawless Iliad adaptation, but it utterly consumed me, I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks, and I have no hesitations when I say that it’s one of my favorite books. My feelings about Circe are much more complicated.

In many ways, you could argue that it surpasses The Song of Achilles from an objective standpoint. The scope of Circe is much larger, and Miller crafts an absolutely stunning arc for her titular character. I put Circe down feeling so satisfied with the conclusion that I wanted to give it 5 stars solely for that mastery… but clearly I did not end up doing that, so let’s back up.

My first issue with Circe was the unnecessarily languid pace. For one thing, there is no reason this book needs to be nearly 400 pages. There is just not that much going on. And for another thing, so many of the subplots in this novel happen offstage, so to speak. In case you aren’t familiar with the original story: Circe is exiled to the island Aiaia and unable to leave. Consequently, a lot of background information is obtained secondhand, from other characters visiting the island and relaying information to Circe. It doesn’t exactly make for the most thrilling narrative.

This ties into that, but due to Circe’s immortality, the stakes in this novel are constantly low. Any altercations that could theoretically result in Circe being killed or injured have absolutely no tension, because you know it’s all going to be okay (physically, at least, if not emotionally). Circe’s immortality is approached beautifully on a thematic level, but not necessarily on a narrative one.

Now let’s talk about Circe herself. This is something I’m sort of conflicted about. Circe is one of those characters from Greek mythology who doesn’t have her own literature, but she features into the background of so many different stories (the Odyssey, notably, but also Theogony, the now lost Telegony, the Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, to name a few). Though none of these stories explore Circe’s life in the way that Miller has endeavored to do, we do get a sense of who she is – a ruthless witch who dwells in solitude and turns men into pigs for sport. That… is not the Circe that Miller gives us. Hers is soft, tame, misunderstood – and the thing is, none of it blatantly contradicts anything from mythological canon. Circe in this novel does turn men into pigs – and Miller shows how she gets there. But at times I still felt like I was reading about an original character, and not Circe. I mean, it all turned out okay. Like I said, the arc that Miller wrote was brilliant. It just took some time to adjust my expectations of how I thought this character was going to be portrayed. (Also, this is only sort of related, but another point of confusion for me were some of the myths that Miller decided to incorporate into Circe’s narrative… though some of her invented stories fit very well. It was sort of a mixed bag for me.)

I know this has been largely critical, but I did like this. It was super readable, I thought the background characters were fascinating (Pasiphaë in particular was really excellent), and I adored the ending. And, as always, I love Greek mythology. I’d rather read Greek mythology retellings than almost anything else. I loved diving back into this world, especially so soon after re-reading the Odyssey. But, I’ve said this before: I tend to be critical of the things I love the most. This is a solid book that many fans are going to love just as much, if not more, than The Song of Achilles. I’ll be very curious to hear what everyone else thinks.

Anyway, this is a very solid 3.5 – I’m rounding down for now solely because I seem to have written a 3-star review instead of a 4-star one, but I may revisit my rating after I’ve thought about this some more.

Thank you so much to Little, Brown and Co and Madeline Miller for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

20 thoughts on “book review: Circe by Madeline Miller

  1. Ah, it’s a shame you didn’t completely love it, I’m really looking forward to this. I don’t think the stuff you’ve mentioned not liking will bother me too much – I’m not too bothered about having lots of action and I don’t know enough about Greek mythology to notice the other stuff so I’m hopeful I’ll still like it 😅 great review!

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    • Interestingly I’m not usually bothered by lack of action either – the vast majority of what I read is character-driven literary fiction, so it’s something I’m used to… maybe it’s because Circe read a bit more like YA so I was in a different mindset? (It’s one of those books that’s kind of on the YA/adult cusp… I think people who read adult fiction will think of it as YA and people who mostly read YA will think of it as adult – but I’ll be curious to see!) But anyway, thank you and I hope you enjoy it!

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  2. Such an excellent review – so well-written and thoughtful! I haven’t read either of her books, but of course, I’ve heard great things about Achilles. This review honestly makes me want to read both, because of how fair you were with your rating and critique – bravo!

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  3. I don’t really know that much about the Greek myths so hopefully this won’t bother me too much or confuse me lol I read some of the stories when I was in high school but I think I only vaguely remember like two of them.

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    • I lent my roommate my copy of Circe and she absolutely loved it, but she’s not as much of a Greek mythology nerd as I am, so I’m definitely getting the feeling that it’s going to be a great book for people who are less familiar with the stories that Miller is adapting. Anyway, I hope you enjoy it!

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    • Thank you! To be honest I wasn’t expecting to like it as much as TSOA solely because I’m so much more partial to the characters and storylines in TSOA than Circe/The Odyssey… but that’s okay, I did enjoy it and look forward to whatever Miller does in the future!

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  4. Oh man I loved The Song of Achilles and am glad to hear that she wrote another book! But good to see a critical review, too–helps me not set my expectations too high. Sorry it didn’t meet your expectations but thanks for this thorough and thoughtful review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much! I was very excited that she’d finally written another book too. I may not have loved it as much as TSOA but it was definitely an enjoyable read. The lowered expectations certainly can’t hurt, I hope you end up loving it!

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