Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Circe by Madeline Miller

A few years ago I picked up a copy of The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller, and having read and enjoyed Mary Renault immensely, I was hooked immediately – it's my opinion that Miller is Renault's literary heir. Miller not brings ancient Greece to life, but she populates it with gods and mortals in a hypnotically lush narrative. When Circe came out, it was a no-brainer – I immediately bought a print copy for my permanent collection.

While you needn't have read The Song of Achilles in order to follow the events in Circe, a basic understanding of the Greek myths will most certainly enrich your reading experience, and chronologically speaking, the books do in a way follow on from each other.

Circe is a daughter of Helios, the sun god, but she's despised by her kin. She's nothing special to look at, compared to them (though mortals will still find her bewitching) and she hasn't exactly been gifted with a divine voice either. Not quite divine to please her fellows, she isn't mortal either – and exists in a liminal space between the two states. And though she has no innate powers like other gods, she has something else that is forbidden to them – the power of witchcraft. The gods' static, decadent world holds no allure for the young nymph who grasps after personal sovereignty. And she is punished for her efforts.

While most could create a herbal poultice or tincture, Circe's creations are powerful elixirs that can bestow divinity or even turn men into swine. Yet this is not enough to pardon her for a perceived slight against the gods, and she is banished to the isle of Aiaia. Readers might make the assumption that a novel that is mostly set on an island for the duration of the main character's exile would be dull, but nothing could be further from the truth. There are gods and monsters, and oodles of betrayals and intrigue – as one would expect in any good Greek saga.

Both mortals and gods have a habit of straying into Circe's domain, and her weavings entangle a fair few. A key theme of this tale focuses on transformation, of self-realisation. Those who may be fair of face harbour monsters in their hearts, men's true, bestial natures are revealed when they partake of particular herbs, and Circe eventually realises her destiny – though the route she walks towards this moment of self-realisation takes requires many years and both sorrow and joy.

This is a story carrying a powerful message of feminine power wrested from a male-dominated world, of embracing a Promethean path despite it being fraught with risk. Circe might not be physically strong, but she is cunning and subtle, and watching her grow into herself is a a wonder to behold. Miller's writing is filled with rich descriptions of environment, redolent with emotion, and she adds to the incredible body of work inspired by and based upon Greek mythology. Circe will not only please long-time readers of historical fantasy, but also those who are looking for a tale that appeals to the heart, that's filled with magic and a sense of wonder.

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