Madeline Miller’s second novel, Circe, is a bestseller that’s been hailed as a feminist take on Greek myth. It takes a minor villain in Homer’s The Odyssey and turns her into a multi-faceted heroine. In Homer, Circe is beautiful and formidable with her powers of transformation, but ultimately falls under the male hero’s sway. An antagonist and then an ally to Odysseus, her appearance in The Odyssey is short but sweet. Miller, on the other hand, imagines a whole life for Circe, packed with mythological cameos and inspired by multiple obscure legends.
In Miller’s hands, Circe is many things: a witch, a goddess, an ugly duckling, a single mother, an outsider, a loner. In other words, she is a complex person. Her struggle to forge her own identity is relatable and satisfying and proves that myths still have great power to speak to modern audiences about modern problems. There are even allusions to the #MeToo movement; there’s a reason Circe transforms men into pigs. Whether you’re a fan of Greek mythology, or you just love seeing sidelined (female) characters in the spotlight, here are 13 other books you may enjoy.
1. The Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker
Society has been notorious for blaming women for male violence, and that’s the theme of The Silence of the Girls. Our protagonist and viewpoint character is Briseis, the queen turned slave girl of the Greek hero Achilles. In The Iliad, Homer’s account of the Trojan War, a squabble over Briseis triggers the poem’s drama. But despite supposedly being the source of the conflict, Briseis herself disappears almost completely from the narrative. Barker corrects that oversight, following Briseis from her capture in a Greek raid to the fall of Troy. Women and children are very much the collateral damage of the war, used and (literally) sacrificed by the male heroes. Be warned, it can be grim reading. However, as an indictment of the human cost of war and the persistent victim-blaming and objectification of women, Barker shows that the mythical material is (sadly) as relevant as ever.
2. Till We Have Faces, by C. S. Lewis
Next to The Chronicles of Narnia, it’s easy to forget that C. S. Lewis was also a classicist. It shows in Till We Have Faces, one of his most obscure but deeply interesting books. It’s a historical fiction retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, a kind of Greco-Roman Beauty and the Beast. The novel is presented as a memoir written by Psyche’s older sister, Orual. In the original story, she is a minor character who encourages Psyche to turn on her godly husband out of jealousy. In Lewis’ version, Orual is the well-meaning and overly-protective guardian of Psyche and the queen of Glome, a primitive city-state. Religion is a strong theme as Orual’s skepticism about the gods and Psyche’s magical experiences are the novel’s main sources of tension. Self-knowledge and personal responsibility are other key themes. The result is a layered, rather melancholy but ultimately hopeful book that Lewis considered his best work. His imagining of Ancient Greece and handling of the mythical material definitely makes it interesting enough to give it a look.
3. The Children of Jocasta, by Natalie Haynes
The Children of Jocasta takes its inspiration from the Theban tragedies of Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus, and Antigone. They relate the terrible fate of Oedipus, who killed his father and married his mother, and the tragic fallout for his family and kingdom. Haynes takes minor characters in the plays, Jocasta and Ismene (Oedipus’ wife/mother and daughter), and allows the famous stories to play out from their perspectives. This makes for pacy writing as the narrative switches between them, cleverly drawing out both women’s tragedies. Haynes skillfully drums up the tension, despite the story’s infamous outcome, creating a delicious sense of impending doom. I loved her approach to rationalizing mythology; the Sphinx (a riddling, man-eating monster) becomes a band of brigands, for example. If you enjoy books that examine well-known stories from a new viewpoint, read this one.
4. Troy, by Adèle Geras
A Young Adult alternative to Circe, Troy tells the story of the fall of Troy from the perspective of two Trojan civilians, sisters Xanthe and Marpessa. Original characters, they are a healer and handmaiden respectively. The latter serves Helen herself, who is a sympathetic character for once. The gods also play important roles; Aphrodite and Eros personally take a hand in the sisters’ drama by triggering the love triangle beloved of YA fiction. Still, the gods and Troy are vividly imagined, as are random citizens going about their lives in the last weeks of the siege. Despite being aimed at teenagers, the book doesn’t shy away from mature themes like abortion and acts of wartime cruelty when Troy is finally pillaged. Focusing on original characters also adds pathos, highlighting the tragedy of conflict for its anonymous, innumerable victims.
5. The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood
The Penelopiad is the story of Penelope, wife of Odysseus, as told by Margaret Atwood. Penelope has long been held up as the ideal of a virtuous, long-suffering wife, often to the detriment of other women. We even see this in-universe in the fate of the maids, who were hanged by Odysseus for sleeping with Penelope’s unwanted suitors. These maids form a chorus line in The Penelopiad, backing up the star with sea shanties, ballads and other musical interludes. Penelope herself is pleasingly caustic, telling her story from the Underworld, from which she spies on the modern age. Atwood takes inspiration from multiple ancient sources, so we’re treated to obscure legends about Penelope’s life, which is a big plus if you’re a mythology fan. The Penelopiad addresses serious subjects but is generally lighter in tone than Circe. It is wittily written and fairly short, making it ideal if you fancy a quick, light read.
6. Lavinia, by Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin is the grandmother of modern sci-fi and fantasy. Her Earthsea books were hugely influential and are probably her best-remembered works, but Lavinia was her last, published in 2008. This seems fitting; Le Guin has been credited with opening the door to greater diversity in sci-fi and Lavinia explicitly fills a silence. In this case, it’s that of the title character, the princess of Virgil’s Aeneid (the Roman equivalent of The Iliad and The Odyssey). Unlike Circe, the Lavinia of the Aeneid is a completely silent, colorless character. Le Guin gives her a voice and brings her fully to life. This Lavinia plays a much more active role in the drama as her beautifully evoked pastoral home is pitched into royal intrigue and warfare with the arrival of Aeneas. You may also enjoy the book’s metafictional elements; Le Guin’s Lavinia is both a historical person telling her story to “the poet” and his literary character.
7. Girl Meets Boy, by Ali Smith
For something a bit different, try Ali Smith’s novella, Girl Meets Boy. It’s a contemporary update of the genderbending myth of Iphis, a girl raised as a boy who is eventually transformed into a man. Smith’s version takes us to modern day Inverness, Scotland, where Anthea (girl) meets Robin (maybe a boy?). They fall in love and team up for a career as protest artists to the consternation of Anthea’s straight-laced sister, Imogen. Girl Meets Boy is a playful exploration of gender and identity politics. Fluidity and change are key themes, both in terms of identity and social activism. Serious messages about water politics and LGBTQ+ and women’s rights underpin the generally lighthearted tone. It’s beautifully written with word play galore and long, lyrical run-on sentences that read like poetry.
8. For The Winner, by Emily Hauser
For The Winner’s protagonist, Atalanta, is a strangely obscure character. Despite her gender-norm defying exploits, like joining the Quest for the Golden Fleece, she is often overlooked in favor of male heroes like Jason and Hercules. For the Winner puts the focus firmly back on Atalanta, and it’s a fascinating portrait of a woman trying to make it in a man’s world. Hauser expands on Atalanta’s role in the story of the Argonauts, raising interesting questions about women in leadership in the process. It’s also an adventure story with all the romance and danger of the voyage of the Argo. But it’s most interesting as a reexamination of a non-conforming woman in a mythological tradition innately hostile to her. You can also check out the rest of the Golden Apple trilogy for Hauser’s retellings of the Trojan War and the Labours of Hercules, specifically his encounter with the Amazons.
9. Bright Air Black, by David Vann
Bright Air Black follows Medea, another infamous witch, though her story is much darker than Circe’s. Vann’s novel begins with Medea murdering and dismembering her brother and throwing the pieces into the sea. This is a delaying tactic to distract her father, allowing her to escape with Jason after helping him steal the Golden Fleece. Her actions are monstrous, but Vann achieves the difficult task of evoking sympathy for Medea, even in her worst moments. Her frustrations with Jason and the limitations of her role as a woman in ancient Greece are familiar and relatable (though, obviously, her responses to them are not!). Vann’s prose is lyrical, verging on poetry. By contrast, his dialogue can be jarringly contemporary, perhaps to remind us of the foreignness of Medea’s world. Taking inspiration from archaeological evidence, Vann reconstructs a captivating vision of Bronze Age Greece that’s closer to Ancient Egypt than Classical Athens. If you like poetic writing and realism in your historical fiction you should give this book a try.
10. Cassandra, by Christa Wolf
We meet Cassandra as a captured slave awaiting her own murder. As in the myth, she’s a Trojan princess and seer who foretold the fall of Troy and her own death, but was never believed. Written as a stream of consciousness, Cassandra flows between different events in the protagonist’s life as she reflects on them, a distraction from her impending death. Wolf takes an unusual approach to the mythology, playing with the traditional details like inventing a romance between Cassandra and Aeneas. It certainly gives familiar stories a fresh feel. The historical context of the novel also adds an interesting twist; written and published in East Germany in 1983, Cassandra’s Troy is a police state paralleling Wolf’s own experiences under Communism. Repression, marginalization, and censorship are all important themes and the glorification of war is scathingly deconstructed. Cassandra is a very original take on the source material.
11. Here, The World Entire, by Anwen Kya Hayward
Another novella, this short but powerful retelling of the story of Medusa packs a punch. With her snake hair and power to turn people into stone, Medusa is one of the most famous monsters in history. Written from Medusa’s perspective, Here, The World Entire flips the story on its head. Medusa becomes a tragic figure, unjustly punished by the gods and isolated from the rest of humanity. Like Circe, it’s a woman’s perspective on the myth. After all, who’s really the villain when a man tracks a woman down to kill her? Hayward also delves into Medusa’s obscure origin story; warning: it’s not pretty. As a meditation on victim-blaming, broken trust and trauma, it can be painful to read. But the writing is elegant, imitating the style of the ancient poets, and the author raises thought-provoking points.
12. Alcestis, by Katharine Beutner
Alcestis was another ancient Greek paragon of femininity, the devoted wife who volunteered to die in her husband’s place. In Alcestis, Beutner proves that shifting the focus of a myth can be extremely revealing. Told from the title character’s perspective, the inevitable question arises: why did she agree to die? Here Alcestis is presented as dutiful and obedient but privately unhappy with her stifling marriage, so much so that she’s willing to die to escape it. Her time in Hades is divided between her search for a beloved sister and an unsettling quasi-romance with Persephone, Queen of the Underworld. The gods are real and present in Alcestis, interacting frequently with the human characters. They are also completely unsanitized for modern audiences. This Persephone is electric and beguiling but also domineering and manipulative in a way some readers might find uncomfortable. Still, if you like well-written retellings that both subvert and stay true to their source, you might enjoy this one.
13. Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie
Another contemporary update, this fascinating novel takes Antigone’s tale of civil disobedience and family duty and applies it to a Muslim family in modern day London. Isma has raised her twin siblings, Aneeka and Parvaiz, since they were children, but is faced with an agonizing dilemma when Parvaiz runs away to join ISIS. Realizing his mistake, he appeals to his sisters to help him get home. But in a country gripped by fear of terrorism and intensely suspicious of its Muslim citizens, how much can Isma and Aneeka risk? It’s a brilliant concept and raises timely questions about racism, Islamophobia, assimilation and civil liberties. The execution is also superb; even the characters’ names echo their ancient counterparts (Ismene, Antigone, Polynices). Antigone’s themes of loyalty to the State versus loyalty to family and personal convictions map perfectly onto the experiences of British Muslims and other minorities. Home Fire is an excellent example of myth’s power to adapt to new cultural contexts.