I am not normally a fan of ‘Best Of’ lists, like best books of the year, best summer reads, etc. I find they tend toward either the depressing or the pretentious. Why is that? Why can’t lists like that be filled with fun books that you’ll find hard to put down and even harder to say farewell to when you reach the end? But that’s a topic of another post.
I’m also not particularly into the ancient Greed gods, although I do have the basic working knowledge a liberal arts education affords those who at least pay some attention in class. So you can imagine how uninterested I might be in a ‘Best Of’ book that revolves around the Greek gods. I know, right? And yet...
Circe kept showing up on list after list; it kept being mentioned here and there in various interviews and articles. I’ve even heard it’s been optioned for a TV series. Plus, I am a fan of Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily mystery series. The delightfully strong-willed heroine is, as her fans know, completely smitten with the ancient Greeks, so you get a little schooling in that arena along with a great story to boot. In other words, all the pieces were in place for me to finally jump in and read Circe. And I’m so glad I did!
Author Madeline Miller has done an ingenious job of taking the ancient gods and incorporating their existing stories into a fully developed tale of Circe, the daughter of Helios, the sun god, who traverses the heavens daily, spreading the sunlight from sunrise to sunset. While he’s an awesome god, he’s not much of a dad. Still, Circe is devoted to him and follows him everywhere. She’s the classic odd-kid-out of the family: not as lovely as her sisters, not as talented at, really, anything.
Circe longs for acceptance and love, but she’s the independent type as well and she’s discovered a growing knowledge of herbology, along with a talent for witchcraft. When she finds love in the wrong place—with a mortal—and breaks a BIG rule in the god realm in the process of trying to make her love acceptable, Zeus commands she pay a price. And with gods, those prices can be steep. She’s banished to live alone forever on a remote island.
You’d think she’d be devastated, but Circe finds satisfaction in being removed from the petty concerns of the gods. She’s able to find herself and develop her talents. Not that it’s easy, or fast. These things take time, centuries even. And gaining wisdom from what you learn takes even longer.
This could have been a long slog through eternity with Circe alone on that island. But it turns out she gets a lot of visitors. Hermes, the god of, well, a bunch of stuff, keeps popping in. He’s full of the latest gossip and good for a turn between the sheets. She knows he’s also reporting back to the curious gods what’s happening on her island—gods love gossip, it seems. Pretty soon mortals come to her shores as well. And let’s just say, you don’t want to come to her house with anything but good intentions. She can be an unforgiving hostess.
Despite the occasional bad guest, Circe finds herself growing more and more fond of those pesky mortals. Aren’t they cute? Some are even lovable. The gods, however, haven’t forgotten her and she gets a brief reprieve from island life to help out her relatives, but you know how it is when you visit relatives, the results can be monstrous-literally.
Eventually, the reason you probably know Circe’s name arrives: Odysseus, hero of The Odyssey. (You read that in school, right? No? Well...me neither, but I get the idea and you will too.) Soon, he is smitten with Circe and she with him, although with mortals, nothing lasts forever. Her relationship with Odysseus sets into motion all the pieces needed to pull together Circe’s lose ends. There are still many twists and turns ahead for her and I don’t want to give anything more away, so I’ll leave you with this. Read this book, it’s quite an epic tale of its own. You’ll be glad you did and, like so many good books, it will stick with you after you’re done. Plus, you’ll learn all that great god info in a very user friendly venue—it’s a win/win.
Bottom line, this is one of the best written, most beautifully fleshed out page turners I’ve read in a long time. I’m in awe of Ms. Miller; she knows her stuff, both with the Greek gods and with the art of writing. Well done!
ps...google the different gods as you meet them, it's fun to get a quick low down on each one's story and helps you better appreciate the big picture.