If only there were more books like Circe by Madeline Miller…
Circe is a dream of a book. It’s the perfect example of the Greek myth retold genre that’s been exploding in the last few years – what with The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker and The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood among others – but the reason I loved Circe goes deeper.
If I had known how beautiful the descriptions of nature would be, I’d have read it much sooner.
After unleashing magic that she never believed she could be capable of, Circe, the daughter of Helios, is banished to the island of Aiaia.
Rather than acting as her prison, Aiaia provides her sanctuary. Her days become focused on honing the art of pharmaka – the magic of herbs – as she forages, picks, blends, brews, and experiments with what she finds.
With the unlimited time available to her as an immortal, her spells and tinctures grow more refined and potent. She transforms men into swine, creates powerful protective chants, and treats her own ailments and those of others.
Her island makes for the perfect retreat for us as reader, too.
Here are some of the best books to read next if you loved Circe, featuring their own unique blend of magic, nature, myth, and foraging.
Books to read if you loved Circe by Madeline Miller
If you loved the nature and magic of Circe, Uprooted is a fantastic choice to read next. We meet Agnieszka, who loves her quiet home, her village, and the nearby forests and glimmering river. But it’s a fantasy novel after all, and the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power casting a shadow over her life.
To keep safe, Agnieszka and her people have to make a sacrifice to the evil wizard, the Dragon, every ten years. That sacrifice is a young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, and the next choosing is fast approaching. Agnieszka is afraid who the Dragon will take next and fears for Kasia – beautiful, brave, and graceful. But when the Dragon comes, it’s not Kasia who he chooses.
Less about myth but very much about the beauty of nature, The Signature of All Things is a stunning book about one woman’s life, love, and self-discovery as a botanist. The novel follows Alma Whittaker, the daughter of a poor-born Englishman who makes a great fortune in the South American quinine trade. Alma inherits his money and his mind, and as she becomes a botanist of considerable gifts, her story soars across the globe.
For another book by Elizabeth Gilbert with plenty of self-sufficiency, foraging, and living off the land, try The Last American Man. It’s non-fiction that reads as myth, offering an intriguing portrayal of Eustace Conway, who at the age of seventeen in 1977, left his family’s comfortable suburban home to move to the Appalachian Mountains and live as close to nature as he could.
Where the Crawdads Sing has been recommended everywhere in the last few years, but if you haven’t read it, give it a go.
We meet Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl, who’s survived for years alone in the marshland that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and building an encyclopaedic knowledge of the natural world. But when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the local North Carolina coastal community immediately suspects her and her quiet life in the wild is shattered.
The author, Delia Owens, was a nature writer by trade before she turned to fiction, and it shows in this beautiful ode to wild places and the sanctuary they provide.
You can read my post on Where the Crawdads Sing for more thoughts and similar books too.
After her family suffers a tragedy, nine-year-old Alice Hart is forced to leave her idyllic seaside home to live with her grandmother, June, a flower farmer who raises Alice on the language of Australian native flowers.
Growing up among flowers in bloom, Alice settles but becomes increasingly frustrated at how little she knows of her family’s story. As she reaches her early twenties, she tries to outrun grief by fleeing to the dramatic Australian desert. It’s here that she thinks she has found solace, but soon realises the danger in front of her. The way Holly Ringland weaves Alice’s story is breathtakingly beautiful.
If there’s a Nordic equivalent to Circe, it’s The Mercies. Set in the winter of 1617, the sea around the remote Norwegian island of Vardø is thrown into a vicious storm.
A young woman, Maren Magnusdatter, watches as the men of the island, out fishing, perish in an instant. The island is now a place of strong women, and The Mercies is a tale of what follows in the beautiful, brutal environment.
It’s Alaska in 1920 – ruthless for all, but especially for new arrivals Jack and Mabel. Childless and drifting apart, the season’s first snowfall brings them together for a moment to build a child out of snow. The next morning, the snow child is gone – but they glimpse a young, blonde-haired girl running through the trees.
The girl seems to be a child of the woods, who hunts with a red fox at her side and somehow survives alone in the wilderness. Jack and Mabel come to love her as their own daughter, but in this beautiful, brutal place nothing is quite as it seems.
If you have already read and loved The Snow Child, you might also enjoy Where the Forest Meets the Stars – a modern retelling by Glendy Vanderah of an otherworldly child found in the forest.
I first picked up The Overstory a couple of years ago after it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2019, but it didn’t feel like the right time – it just didn’t grab me as I hoped it would. I gave it another chance this month, and I’m so glad I did. I adored it.
It’s a gorgeously rich and moving book, structured around nine Americans whose encounters with five trees bring them together to address the destruction of forests.
It’s heavier than most of the other books on this list – and you can safely argue that the book should have been shorter than its 512 pages. But what a story it is.