I completely, 100% picked this up because Melinda Salisbury was raving about it all over the place and I needed to understand why. I did not expect it to become one of my favourite books of all time, and yet here we are. In the last couple of months I have read it and listened to it on audiobook, and I plan to do so again soon. I love this book.
Circe is one of the lesser goddesses, the daughter of Helios (god of the sun). She has a voice like a hawk, isn’t considered as pretty as the greater gods, and is immediately dismissed by her parents who set out immediately to “make a better one”. She is different to those around her, and they constantly let her know it. Her life in Helios’s court is not what could be considered a happy one.
Circe’s story is not one I was familiar with before I picked up this book, but the story touches on other, more familiar Greek myths, like that of Prometheus. Circe meets Prometheus as he is awaiting punishment for his crime, and in a simple act of kindness shows that she has more warmth and humanity in her than any of her kind. I loved this about Circe. It is in this moment that she learns what it is to be immortal, to live forever, even if that life is one of sadness and punishment, the gods do not have the relief of death. It also leads her to dwell on mortals, and how they live each day knowing that their time is short and brutal.
Inevitably, Circe falls in love with a mortal, and discovers the skill of witchcraft, but her plan doesn’t turn out as she expects, and she is exiled to the island of Aeaea. Circe is alone in a cosy house by the sea, with everything she needs. She is living my best life.
Much of Circe’s story is concerned with her accepting herself for who she is (she is a witch, not a god) and with her growing power. Circe leans her craft, it is not the easy kind of power the gods have:
“Let me say what sorcery is not: it is not divine power, which comes with a thought and a blink. It must be made and worked, planned and searched out, dug up, dried, chopped and ground, cooked, spoken over and sung. Even after all that, it can fail as gods do not.”
Circe works for her power, she earns every bit of it, and I loved her for this. Her power is one that is born of skill and effort, it is something she draws on when it is needed, not something she uses frivolously. She leads a simple, solitary life. Sometimes visitors come to the island, occasionally Circe will take one to her bed, but life on Aeaea is very much on her terms. Men try to control her, but she is a powerful witch, and she makes them pay for misjudging her.
Her family still try to control her from afar, which leads to some interesting stories and interactions with her life before Aeaea. She is never allowed to forget that her life here is supposed to be a punishment, but Circe has not forgotten the dark side of her power and the things she did that led to her exile. She carries a lot of guilt for this.
Her obsession with mortals remains. One of her mortal lovers stays with her longer than the others (and later his wife shows up which is awkward but strangely beautiful, as Circe shows her that there is a way to live your life that isn’t being passed around from one man to another). Her son, when he is born, is also mortal. This leads to an interesting perspective on motherhood, one that certainly made me think about what it would be like to live forever and not be able to keep everyone you love with you.
Circe has a lot to say about motherhood. It is not a role that comes easily to Circe, every moment is a battle:
“I did not go easy to motherhood. I faces it as soldiers face their enemies, girded and braced, sword up against the coming blows.”
Telegonus is a difficult and unsettled baby, and his early years are not easy for Circe. As he grows older, she faces the painful realisation that one day he will leave her. I refuse to acknowledge this is a thing and am certain that my boy is going to be a small boy forever. Circe will do anything to protect Telegonus (and she has to because there are powerful people intent on destroying him), but she cannot protect him from his dreams and his desire to live his life. This book thoroughly explores the heartbreak of a child outgrowing his need for his mother and the pain she goes through to keep him from sadness (and I felt this in my soul):
“One of us must grieve. I would not let it be him”
I will not spoil the ending for you, but I will tell you this: it is not often that I reach the last page of a book and instantly want to start it all over again – I did with Circe. It is perfect.