I enjoy mythology, but less for its own sake than for the cultural heritage it represents. Because it’s not otherwise a passion of mine, I prefer retellings to the original sources. They’re just easier to consume, and I don’t want to have to work that hard to understand what’s going on and get into the story. If that makes me lazy, so be it. 🙂 Also, somebody is marketing the heck out of this book—it’s everywhere!
This story follows Circe, alternately described as a nymph, a goddess, and a witch. She’s a character I’d never heard of before, and we get the highlights of some of the major stories of Greek mythology through her eyes, since she’s immortal. Because this is how the story is set up, it’s very episodic. There isn’t exactly an overall plot; it’s more the story of Circe’s life. She’s the daughter of Helios, the god of the sun, but her mother is a nymph. This makes her a lesser goddess then her siblings, and consequently she’s either despised or ignored. She discovers that she is a witch on accident, when she falls in love with a human and wants to turn him into a god. This succeeds, but then he forgets her and falls in love with another nymph named Silla, much more beautiful than Circe herself. Circe then turns Silla into a sea monster. Zeus banishes Circe to the island of Aeaea.
Both before and after her banishment, Circe encounters some of the big names of Greek mythology: Promethius (her uncle), Daedalus (her lover) and Icarus (his son); Medea (her niece and later wife of Jason and the Argonauts). Eventually Odysseus of Homer’s Odyssey fame, king of Ithaca, crash lands on her island. He has by then already encountered the cyclops and the sea serpent Silla. Odysseus stays long enough for Circe to fall in love with him and become pregnant. Odysseus of course has a son back home by his wife Penelope, named Telemachus. Circe names her son Telegonus. He grows up sheltered, obsessed with finding his father. With Circe’s help, Telegonus manages to journey back to Ithaca and find him, but he kills Odysseus on accident (in fulfillment of a prophecy, of course). Then Telegonus returns to Aeaea, with Penelope and Telemachus in tow. Circe teaches Penelope to become a witch also. With the help of the goddess Athena, Telegonus goes off and becomes a king himself. Then Telemachus and Circe hook up—weird, since he’s her son’s half brother… but then, I guess there were all sorts of weird relationships in Greek mythology.
I understand that the story is pretty faithful to the original myths, but I was unfamiliar with them to the point that they felt new to me. I had to look up some of the stories to see which parts (if any) were poetic license on the part of the author. The prose is beautiful, and feels rather “high brow”—this feels to me like the sort of novel I’d have been assigned to read in a college English course. (Not surprising, since the author studied classical drama at Yale.) But because the story was so episodic, I can’t say I got “sucked in” per se—it didn’t have the momentum of an action-packed story, in which I had to know what happened next. I could put it down pretty easily, and might not have finished it if it hadn’t been in audio format. But as a vehicle to teach Greek mythology in an easily digestible format, it’s great.
My rating: *** 1/2