This follow-up to the Orange Prize-winning The Song of Achilles follows Circe, the banished witch daughter of Helios, as she hones her powers and interacts with famous mythological beings before a conflict with one of the most vengeful Olympians forces her to choose between the worlds of the gods and mortals.
Miller’s novel charms like a good bedtime story; she understands our inexhaustible appetite for myths starring our favorite characters, and that we don’t want these stories to end ... Miller’s technique echoes Circe’s alchemical powers, as she makes these minor characters more than mere references. She performs a sleight of hand on the gods; instead of figures of ambivalent and shifting grace, favoritism, and destruction in relation to humanity, Miller’s gods for the most part hold human beings in contempt. The gods are chilling: their immortality makes them incapable of love ... Miller has a gift for creating settings that summarize their inhabitants, along with swiftly brushstroked traits and habits that define characters ... Miller transcends her fairy-tale models, though she returns to them at the book’s conclusion, somewhat predictably, but still poignantly. Miller understands that the best fairy tales are not only wish fulfillments but also stories of the denial of wishes. She manages to combine both elements in her finale, creating an ending that is simultaneously happy and unhappy.
As with her previous novel, the great skill here is the way Miller gives voice to a previously muted perspective in the classics, forging a great romance from the scraps left to us by the ancients. If The Song of Achilles recovered a half-buried homosexual love story from the Iliad, Circe gives us a feminist slant on the Odyssey ... Miller has made a collage out of a variety of source materials–from Ovid to Homer to another lost epic, the Telegony–but the guiding instinct here is to re-present the classics from the perspective of the women involved in them, and to do so in a way that makes these age-old texts thrum with contemporary relevance. If you read this book expecting a masterpiece to rival the originals, you’ll be disappointed; Circe is, instead, a romp, an airy delight, a novel to be gobbled greedily in a single sitting.
...Miller has determined, in her characterization of this most powerful witch, to bring her as close as possible to the human — from the timbre of her voice to her intense maternal instincts ... Circe is very pleasurable to read, combining lively versions of familiar tales (like the birth of the Minotaur or the arrival of Odysseus and his men on Circe’s island) and snippets of other, related standards (a glance at Daedalus and Icarus; a nod to the ultimate fate of Medea after she and Jason leave Aiaia) with a highly psychologized, redemptive and ultimately exculpatory account of the protagonist herself. That said ... It’s a hybrid entity, inserting strains of popular romance and specifically human emotion into the lives of the gods. Idiosyncrasies in the prose reflect this uneasy mixture ... In spite of these occasional infelicities and awkwardnesses, Circe will surely delight readers new to the witch’s stories as it will many who remember her role in the Greek myths of their childhood ... Purists may be less enchanted, bemused by Miller’s sentimental leanings and her determination to make Circe into an ultimately likable, or at least forgivable, character. This narrative choice seems a taming, and hence a diminishment, of the character’s transgressive divine excess.