Circe is born into a landscape where, Oceanus, the most divine ruler in classical antiquity, rules over naiads, shining nymphs and muscled river-gods. Circe's mother, Perse, has a mind "like a spike-toothed eel," while her father the sun-good Helios takes whatever he wants. Circe grows up quickly, determined to spend every second at her father's feet. She's soon old enough to ride in Helios's golden chariot and witnesses her father's anger at Prometheus, who is quickly sent to live in the underworld's deepest pit until a proper torment can be devised. Athena, Zeus's warrior daughter, appears with her brother by her side. One of the most powerful of the Olympians, Athena has come to observe the currents of power and listen to Helios's secrets.
Finding solace with her brother Aeetes, a gifted philosopher, Circe's life is good--until she casts a jealous spell over beautiful, viper-hearted Scylla. Faced with an impossible conundrum, Circe is drawn into a battle over handsome Glaucos, a clash in which all of Scylla's ugliness will be revealed. In desperation, Circe uses her wicked "pharmaka" to make Glaucos a god while turning Scylla into a monster, a raging creature with twelve dangling feet, six long necks and grisly heads lined with a triple row of sharp teeth. "I was jealous of his love for her and wanted to make her ugly. I did it selfishly, in bitter heart."
In punishment, her father exiles her to Aiaia, an isolated island far from her home. Here she begins to practice her witchcraft while awaiting the arrival of the god Hermes, who provides the only pause in her long stretch of solitude. Circe walks among the shadowy trees, smelling their salt iron and blood. By night, she paces through the quiet orchids and the olive groves to Aiaia's sandy beach, where she ruminates on her connection to Aeetes and Glaucos. To be exiled and utterly alone: "What worse punishment could there be?" Circe's new home is a monument to her father's pride, though her true punishment is still to come.
Miller unfolds Circe's thwarted desires over Glaucus--and later Daedalus and Odysseus--in a narrative that eventually comes full circle. Circe is plunged into a whirlpool of blank shock when she tells her sister Pasiphae, the wife of King Minos and mother of the Minotaur, that she will never be "like her." But Circe's witchcraft is no match against an Olympian, even though she's able to transform into wild beasts the men who wash onto Aiaia's shows seeking refuge from Scylla, who haunts the rocks of a narrow strait opposite the whirlpool of Charybdis. The ships who sail too close to her rocks lose men to her ravenous, darting heads.
Miller has a fluid, lucid style does justice to Circe's enduring legend. She strikes a perfect balance between modern language legible to the contemporary reader and the original Greek names and terminology. The most prominent aspect of Miller's work is the increasingly cruel acts perpetrated by the gods, whom Circe describes as sometimes honorable but always selfish. If heroes like Daedalus and Odysseus are prone to the judgment of the gods, as Miller seems to suggest, then what hope remains for the rest of us mortals? Circe lies in the darkness with Odysseus as he tells her stories of Troy: Achilles's strong love for Patroclus, as well as the conjuring of the War spear by spear.
Miller plunges us into Circe's elegiac love for her son, Telegonus; the struggles of Odysseus's soldiers; and Telegonus's valor as he sets out to find his father after Odysseus's wife, Penelope, and his other son, Telemachus, arrive at Aiaia seeking mercy from the "golden witch." From the vengeance of the great gods Athena, Apollo and Zeus, Circe seeks a sort of "divine privilege." Hermes is long gone, and her nymphs do not care for any worldly news. The men who came to hurt her sit at Circe's tables thinking only of their appetites. Although there is much talk of the gods and their incomprehensible rites, it is fitting that Helios's prophecy is finally delivered.
Miller always makes her story accessible. From a son's love for his mother to the incandescence of romance, Circe's fate is often left hanging in the balance. A fitting companion piece to the earlier Song of Achilles, Miller's story has everything--love and loss in a legendary tale where the stories of the immortal gods are balanced against the high cost of mortal love.