Fans of Madeline Miller’s debut novel, Song of Achilles, will be rushing to jump back into her deftly reimagined Hellenic world with Circe (Little, Brown, $27). In this newest release, Miller brings another secondary Homeric character to the forefront with the story of Circe, the neglected and later exiled daughter of the Titan Helios. Readers follow Circe from her lonely childhood through endless centuries of immortal life, as she discovers her own power through witchcraft and meets a cast of familiar mythological characters along the way. Miller crafts a fiercely independent anti-heroine with lyrical and mesmerizing prose that pulls the reader in as swiftly as the whirlpools of Charybdis—if only to devastate as often as the jaws of Scylla. This riveting novel is a heartfelt ode to a supremely human goddess, and to every woman who has had to create her own power in a callous world.
In Homer’s Iliad Briseis, though once queen of Lyrnessus, barely counts as even a minor character. The captured Trojan “awarded” to Achilles, then claimed by Agamemnon, she’s at most a plot device to explain why Achilles refuses to fight during a crucial part of the siege of Troy. But in Pat Barker’s retelling of the epic, The Silence of the Girls (Doubleday, $27.95), Briseis is fully realized as an observant, angry, and engaging character. Flouting the patriarchal culture’s dictate that “silence becomes a woman,” Briseis tells her own story, and it’s not the same one Homer told. Where the original version glorified death, for instance, Briseis is interested in lives, and her narrative is full of psychologically astute portraits of both women and men. She sees clearly that Agamemnon is a liar and a brute, but, though Achilles is the one who killed her husband and brothers, Briseis comes to understand how he’s been deeply hurt by his mother’s early abandonment of him, and shows us the angry, lonely little boy he is at heart. The novel is full of such unexpected and tender moments.
The Mere Wife (MCD, $27) , by Maria Dahvana Headley, is the perfect gift for anyone on your list who likes fierce and smart retellings of canonical works that turn the original stories on their heads and make you rethink things you had learned in school. The Mere Wife is a re-invention of Beowulf, set in suburbia and done in Headley’s gorgeous prose and with her flair for fantastic and immersive storytelling. The novel hits you hard whether you know every line of the original or have never read it. Headley has taken apart the original story, rewove and repurposed the pieces, crafting a dark and beautiful fable about war, trauma, power of women, and what it means to keep those you love safe.