Circe is the daughter of the powerful Greek sun god Helios and the beautiful ocean nymph Perse. But Circe, though born from a Titan, does not possess any magical abilities in her youth. It is only when she investigates the fascinating land of the mortals that she discovers that she does possess the abilities of a witch – to gather up rare herbs and mix them into powerful potions and speak incantations that can transform flesh.  

In legend she was able to change humans into wolves, lions, and most notably pigs. In Homer’s epic tale Odysseus visits her island with his crew. All but the hero are changed into swine, and he falls under her spell for some time before carrying on with his long journey home. It’s this small mention in The Odyssey that piqued my interest in reading this book which frankly didn’t appeal to me much as the marketing seems to imply it’s more chick-lit than faithful interpretation of myth. However, the book did come recommended on a reading list we created as part of a team-building exercise at work, and indeed it didn’t cost me anything because we each got an Amazon voucher with which to buy a book or two.

The book really gets going when, feeling threatened by Helios’s daughters new found powers, bearded boss god Zeus banishes Circe to the remote island of Aeaea. Here in splendid isolation she creates her own private world and creates a garden full of the plants she needs to learn more witchcraft and hone her skills. However, it’s not long before visitors arrive to the island. These include Daedalus (who created the maze for the Minotaur and whose son Icarus famously came a cropper when he flew too close to the sun) and Odysseus, both of whom Circe takes a liking to despite knowing that eventually they will leave her island.   

Circe also has siblings and a son to deal with and the story wouldn’t be much of a Greek tale if there weren’t wrathful gods, tricky mortals and internecine rivalries wherever she looks. Miller explores all these various forces and Circe’s reaction to them in a feminist frame and with modern language. As such it’s no surprise that it went down well with her established audience on the heels of her award-winning and very modern love story The Song of Achilles and with new readers like me. It’s also no surprise, post-Game of Thrones (a show with it’s own complex but unrelated character called Circe), that it is being adapted into a TV show.

An interview with Madeline Miller

As well as landing on our work ‘bucket list’ (no mean feat given that we were only allowed to choose one book), Circe was a New York Times bestseller, and won the Indies Choice Best Audiobook of the Year Award and Best Adult Fiction of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction. It also won an American Library Association Alex Award, The Red Tentacle Award, and the Elle Big Book Award in 2018. 

It has also been awarded the status of ‘keeper’ on my bookshelf i.e. it won’t be making a trip to the charity shop. It certainly fits in well alongside Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, and Stephen Fry’s Mythos, Heroes and Troy.

Photo by Tejasvi Ganjoo on Unsplash