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Madeline Miller’s Circe: Five Years On | Review

By Jack Carlile

Rating: 4/5

Madeline Miller (right) at a lunch promoting her work. Image: kellywritershouse on flickr*

After finding immense success with her debut novel The Song of Achilles in 2011, Madeline Miller published Circe, which celebrates its fifth anniversary this year with a gorgeous hardback special edition to match its predecessor.

But as fans are starved for news about both the TV adaptation (which is supposedly still happening) and Miller’s next novel (which is said to centre around the Greek goddess Persephone), now seems an apt time to reevaluate just how successful Miller’s second novel is when we view it as its own work, rather than as a follow-up to The Song of Achilles.

Miller is often coined as the author responsible for spearheading the influx of Greek mythology retellings that the literary world is currently experiencing. Her explicitly queer depiction of characters surrounding the Trojan War kicked off a monumental trend of novels re-examining the nature of ancient myths and stories, with Circe’s feminist approach being a particularly popular theme with other authors such as Jennifer Saint and Natalie Haynes. With only two novels under her belt, Miller is still arguably the biggest name in mythology retellings to date. But is that reputation deserved?

For my money, it truly is. Circe is not a novel for the readers desperate for an excitingly linear plot. It follows a minor goddess and witch from Greek mythology, the titular Circe, in her largely solitary life as well-known characters from the general mythos come and go, providing a general overview of numerous gods and heroes while remaining an intimate, in-depth character study of our protagonist. Outside of Miller’s novel, Circe is most notable as a minor character in Homer’s The Odyssey, and while the events of the story do overlap with that poem and other mythological stories,

Miller’s liberties with the character and her attempt at filling in the gaps is what makes the novel so special.

She establishes a balance between an isolated, introspective tale and a ‘greatest hits’ of Greek mythology. Miller expertly weaves sections of the book together, whether it be a segment of Circe experimenting with how to endure and enjoy her exile along with visits from Jason and Medea, or Odysseus and his men on their journey home to Ithaca. This balance is essential both for developing Circe’s character — giving insight into who she will eventually become — and keeping the reader’s attention, providing an ample variety of plotlines and interactions despite most of the novel taking place in one setting — her island. As previously mentioned, the novel could frustrate readers who need an engaging plot to keep them satisfied, but Miller’s beautiful prose and fantastic development of her central character prevent it from becoming at all tedious.

Whether or not you want to treat yourself to the new special edition or just stick with the cheaper (but still gorgeous) paperback copy, Circe is well worth the read, living up to Miller’s exalted reputation amongst modern readers and providing an interesting re-evaluation of this classical character.

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