Circe Review

Madeline Miller - Circe

Imagine if, in The Force Awakens, everyone was either cruel, evil, or a bumbling idiot, except for Rey. Then imagine a Star Wars sequel where Rey isn’t just a Mary Sue, but doesn’t actually do anything to move the story forward, where she just waits on her planet for people to show up and tell her things.

This pretty much sums up Circe, a book about a witch, daughter of Helios, banished to live alone on an island. Now, I have never been one to defend the anti-SJW crowd. As a vocal feminist, I take no issue with the all-female Ghostbusters cast, Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel, or even Rey in Star Wars. I love strong female characters! And speaking of witches, Wanda from WandaVision might be my new favorite superhero. But Circe is so overtly anti-male, Miller’s SJW voice really stands out, and in a bad way. Now to be fair, most of the women in this book are terrible too, but the men are always to blame. For nearly half the book, the only person with a modicum of empathy is Circe herself, which makes you question how the main character, born into such a monstrous family, can be so perfectly decent. Like Circe, Shakespeare’s Hamlet sees villains around every corner also, but while Hamlet remains sympathetic throughout the play, we recognize that much of his view is skewed by his obsession for revenge, which makes for a far more compelling hero.

As a result of Miller’s hyper-focused perspective, the whole setting reeks of a cynicism which, like every other edgy fantasy book I’ve read these days, never fails to turn me off. This isn’t to say I oppose a modern take on Greek mythology. I’ll be the first to admit Homer is awful when it comes to female representation. But pointing out every sexist thing to be found in a 3000-year-old text is just lazy writing. Society has always been sexist, more so the further back in time you go, but I adore Greek mythology nonetheless, as it is not only a part of my heritage but the birthplace of the genre I write in, and is the very reason I picked up Circe in the first place. By putting these epic myths under the modernist microscope, Miller strips away everything I love about Greek mythology. It would have been much better to modernize the stories themselves, in the way Clash of the Titans updated Perseus, Rick Riordan updated the gods in The Lightning Thief, and Disney changed Hercules from a homicidal maniac into a sword and sandal Superman. Greek mythology abounds with strong female role models, from the Amazons, who birthed Wonder Woman, to its myriad goddesses, far more than what can be found in any of our modern religious texts. ATHENA, Goddess of War and Wisdom, was venerated above all other Olympians. But instead of female heroines to root for, Circe gives us hundreds of pages of rapists and infanticidal killers. Again, while this sort of thing was prevalent in the myths, so were honor, heroism, and love.

Wistful Witch of the West. Madeline Miller, Circe. New York… | by Elizabeth  Manwell | In Medias Res | Medium

Now, I am not one to judge a book by its negatives. Make a sexist world with a feminist Mary Sue and I still might love your story, but here, the book is essentially plotless. One-hundred and seventy pages in, and I do not know why I should care about any of it. There is no conflict driving the story, no mystery to uncover, no reason to keep turning the pages. Circe just sits on her island and people show up to tell her things. Again, not every story needs a direct conflict. There are masterful novels out there where very little happens (see Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) but this isn’t one of them.

That being said, Circe isn’t all bad. Miller’s prose is beautifully written and very accessible, and she does a great job capturing her character’s continual angst, anger, jealousy, and isolation, bringing this three-thousand-year-old side-character to life. The author also did her homework, putting her Classics degree to work to deliver a convincing and accurate portrayal of the Ancient Greek world and its myths. And, at around page 200, the story picks up when Odysseus finally arrives. This is how, I believe, the book should have opened. It’s storytelling #101: start with the event that gets the plot rolling, then work your way backward. Odysseus proves not all men are evil and stupid (only 99% of them) despite the fact that he admits to committing war crimes and he cheats on his doting wife constantly and without hesitation. In the three chapters where we get his story, we are reminded of the epic adventure that is The Iliad and The Odyssey, and only wish (at least I did) to have left with him into a better story. Finally, at about page 250, we are introduced to an actual conflict—something for the reader to care about—but the solution Miller gives us is so contrived, so 11th hour convenient, I lost all hope for the novel and had to stop reading it. And that’s storytelling #102: You need to set up your MacGuffins, typically via foreshadowing.

Perhaps Miller’s story was too constrained by the events Homer put down ages ago. Maybe this is the best book about Circe that could have been written, which is a shame, when you consider the wealth of characters to be mined from Greek myth. Then again, Circe has seen wild success, earning considerable acclaim from critics and readers alike, so what in the Hades do I know?

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