BOOK REVIEW: Circe by Madeline Miller

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Some authors spend years struggling to finish books, get published, and then get an audience to read and admire their work. Madeline Miller’s first novel won her the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012 and became a New York Times bestseller. Circe is only her second novel, but shot to Number 1 on the New York Times bestseller list shortly after it was released. The Guardian, Mail on Sunday and the Sunday Express have called this a ‘must-read book’ of 2018. Talk about talent.

‘Above, the sky was cloudless, and the heat pinned the air to the deck. I yanked off the cloak. I wanted the sun to burn me. I wanted it to scorch me down to bone.’

The title of the novel is also the name of its main character. Circe the nymph is born into the house of Helios, god of the sun. But she fails to be quite as powerful as her father, and she lacks her mother’s charm also. In fact, Circe doesn’t really have any unique talents or powers of her own, often overshadowed by her brothers and sisters. But there is a reason Circe is the titular character. Not only is she immortal, but she has one heck of a story to tell. And it is a seamless and intoxicating story, combining myths and mortals, love and loss, and empowers females in what is ultimately a man’s world.

‘I kept to the highest peaks, the brakes where mortals could not follow me. Even as I did it, I laughed at myself. Which of them do you think is going to chase after you?’

As a writer myself, I envy Miller’s writing style. She strings together simple words and ideas, but her sentences sound heavenly, as is deserved in a book with a cast of gods. The fact that the book is narrated in first-person is a remarkable feat. Miller truly immerses herself into another world, and allows us to do the same.

‘Divine days fall like water from a cataract, and I have not yet learned the mortal trick of counting them.’

For me, the best part of the novel is Circe herself. She embodies everything it means to be a powerful woman. Both her feminism and femininity stand out throughout the work. She grows to have impeccable independence, and learns self-defence the hard way. Both girls and boys can be inspired by a female heroine without limits or limitations, and who can overcome any obstacle that is thrown her way.

‘I did what I liked. If you had asked me, I would have said I was happy. Yet always I remembered.’

I’ll be the first person to admit that I’m not the biggest fan of mythology, or books about Greek gods. I never jumped on the Percy Jackson bandwagon. It’s just a subject matter that doesn’t appeal to me. However, Circe has a charm of its own. Although the novel feels a little too neatly plotted at times, the mythological references aren’t overwhelming, and the characters feel human. That’s the novel’s charm: Miller uses seemingly other worldly concepts to reveal human truths.

‘The earth’s wounds had healed and the peace had held. But the grudges of gods are as deathless as their flesh…’

Miller’s novel isn’t restricted to readers obsessed with mythology, although they would certainly revel in the references and characters. Miller’s novel is for anybody looking for a cleverly crafted story and a kick-ass protagonist. It is a modern take on ancient classics, and destined to become a new-age classic of its own. If you do choose to pick this novel up, good luck putting it down. And now it is time to sit and wait patiently for a few years until Madeline Miller releases her next, and inevitably mind-blowing, work.

Circe is published by Bloomsbury and is available to purchase here.


Madeline Miller


Madeline Miller has a BA and MA from Brown University in Latin and Ancient Greek, and has been teaching both for the past nine years. She has also studied at the Yale School of Drama, specialising in adapting classical tales to a modern audience. The Song of Achilles is her first novel and was the winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012.

Reviewed by Alice Kouzemenko


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