Hello, good evening and welcome! It’s been a MINUTE since my last review but I’ve been abroad on a top secret undercover mission for the government, very hush hush. Thankfully I’m back in one piece and will now dose you up with not one, not two, but three reviews. Open wide!
#1: Circe (Madeline Miller, 2018)
First off, dear reader, I have to rave about Circe by Madeline Miller, which I read over the summer. It’s rare that a book comes along that is a true delight to just immerse yourself in and relish the language and the characters. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles and Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell books spring to mind as similar novels in this respect, epitomising for me the sheer delicious joy of reading, and this is another of that very special ilk.
Circe is one of a crowd of recent novels, such as Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, that subvert and retell tales from Ancient Greek mythology. As you might imagine from the title, this one takes as its subject Circe, the sorceress from The Odyssey, known primarily for wickedly turning Odysseus’s sailors into pigs. Here Miller tells Circe’s story from her childhood as a neglected and looked-down-on daughter of Helios the sun god, to her long exile on the isle of Aiaia and her eventual meeting with Odysseus, and beyond. Along the way she encounters a plethora of other characters from Greek myth, ranging from the Minotaur to Medea, and endures a bucketload of hardship and adversity.
One of the pleasures of this book for me is the way in which Miller effortlessly weaves all these figures and stories throughout the narrative without it seeming like a checklist. For a fan of mythology such as me it was great fun to recognise characters like Daedalus and Ariadne, though I’ve heard from friends and family who’ve also read it that less prior knowledge of Ancient Greek stuff doesn’t hinder enjoyment of the book at all, so deft is Miller at introducing the various characters and explaining who they are.
Madeline Miller is a true talent when it comes to her descriptive prose and her characterisation. Circe herself is a magnetic protagonist, so complex, sympathetic and tough. Her isolation and mistreatment at the hands of the Olympians leads to the emergence of a fascinatingly feminist character, independent, powerful, and more than able to hold her own against capricious gods and self-centred heroes. Circe is also a compelling portrait of motherhood, and the lengths to which a mother will go to protect her child. Miller’s descriptions of things like the scent of sun-warmed skin, of herb gardens, and the tang of the sea, all contribute to a wonderful sense of realism and relatability of place and character – such an achievement in a story that is also so redolent of magic and fantasy. I also love the way she writes about the gulf between the casual cruelty and vanity of the impossibly, frighteningly beautiful gods, and the earthy, scarred, rough-handed humanity of mortals.
I could burble on about this book for a good while. It’s truly excellent. Please do go and read it.
Bloomsbury | 2019 | 352p | Paperback | Buy here
#2 and #3: The Affinity Bridge (George Mann, 2008); The Osiris Ritual (George Mann, 2009)
These two novels are a tonal handbrake turn from Circe, but I did really enjoy them in their own way. These would be firmly in the escapist romp camp. In terms of their premise – zombies and robots in an alternate steampunk Victorian London – your mileage may vary, but for me, they’re right up my foggy alleyway.
The Affinity Bridge and The Osiris Ritual are the first two instalments in the Newbury & Hobbes series by George Mann. Sir Maurice Newbury is a very dashing mash-up of Sherlock Holmes, Indiana Jones and James Bond. By day he works at the British Museum as an expert in the occult, but in reality he is a super-sleuth and a secret agent reporting directly to Queen Victoria (who here is incidentally a sinister kind of augmented cyborg on life support!). He is joined on his adventures by his assistant Miss Veronica Hobbes, a no-nonsense trousers-wearing companion more than capable of beating up baddies and solving crimes on her own. They both have interesting personal issues – he has a drug problem, she has a clairvoyant sister locked up in an asylum – and they also have an entertaining sexual chemistry with each other, a will-they-won’t-they vibe that reminded me of Cormoran and Robin in Robert Galbraith’s Strike novels. They’re also frequently joined by Newbury’s old friend and Chief of Police Sir Charles Bainbridge, who’s a bit fusty and bewildered but also brave and loyal when the going gets tough.
The Affinity Bridge mixes together a lot of fun genre ingredients. There’s a mysterious outbreak of zombie plague in the East End, a proliferation of creepy clockwork automata, an airship crash involving a member of the royal family, and a run of brutal murders carried out by a glowing ghostly policeman. Are these things all linked? PERHAPS. The follow-up, The Osiris Ritual, begins with the murder of a prominent Egyptologist, maybe connected to the return from abroad of a former secret agent now turned cyborg (yes that’s right, another cyborg!) and rumours of a lurking mad-scientist super-villain type, as well as the suspicious disappearance of several young women. There’s a steampunk submarine, a rooftop chase, mortal peril – all dashed exciting, what.
While these are hardly particularly memorable, they are entertaining to read in the moment if steampunk’s your thing. The plots are pretty good with lots of different strands and twists, and the characters are strong and likeable. You could definitely do worse! I’ll be reading the next one.
Snowbooks | 2008 | 416p | Paperback | Buy here
Snowbooks | 2009 | 416p | Hardback | Buy here