Title: The Song of Achilles
Author: Madeline Miller
Publication date: March 2012 (first edition in September 2011)
Length: 369 pages (Kindle edition)
Genre: Historical fiction, Adult (some mature scenes, nothing explicit)
The legend begins…
Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia to be raised in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles. “The best of all the Greeks”—strong, beautiful, and the child of a goddess—Achilles is everything the shamed Patroclus is not. Yet despite their differences, the boys become steadfast companions. Their bond deepens as they grow into young men and become skilled in the arts of war and medicine—much to the displeasure and the fury of Achilles’ mother, Thetis, a cruel sea goddess with a hatred of mortals.
When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece, bound by blood and oath, must lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause, and torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows. Little do they know that the Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice.
Built on the groundwork of the Iliad, Madeline Miller’s page-turning, profoundly moving, and blisteringly paced retelling of the epic Trojan War marks the launch of a dazzling career
The Song of Achilles is a reimagining of the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles in the events leading up to and including the Trojan War. Told from Patroclus’ point of view, it follows him from the time he’s five up to his death during the war focusing on how he and Achilles grew close while he spent time in the Phthian court. If you’ve read the Iliad (I’ll readily admit, I haven’t but I know a fair amount bout the events in the Homeric Poems, and of course I’ve watched Troy) you’ll know that the exact nature of the relationship between these two is open to interpretation, which leads to them being lovers here.
The story begins with the marriage between Patroclus’ parents, his birth, and then the first time he sees Achilles. Unlike him, Achilles exhibits all the qualities the perfect son should even at the tender age of five when he runs in the games, while Patroclus watches from the stands. His memories up to the time when he’s sent to Peleus’ court are scattered, as if he couldn’t properly remember his life before meeting Achilles but we catch glimpses of his life, including the day when Helen chooses Menelaos as a husband and all her other suitors, including Patroclus, pledge their fealty to the couple. At ten his life is turned upside down when he leaves his court and title to be raised by Peleus in Phthia following an unfortunate incident that leaves his father no choice. From then on, Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship develops slowly, blossoming as they go from friends to fumbling teenagers until they become lovers, ultimately devoted to each other even in death.
When it comes to the characters, I love the backstory Miller gave the pair, especially Patroclus because it made his character development all the more important. At first Patroclus is a clumsy and rather forgetful young boy but, as his friendship with Achilles grows, his confidence in himself does too. It’s fascinating to see the change in him and how he gains confidence, but also how that confidence isn’t tied to Achilles, sure he’s the reason Patroclus grew into the man he did but the fact that others also comes to accept and rely on him shows how much he’s changed and how much the world’s view of him has changed. Patroclus has less of an influence on Achilles’ character but his personality is still shaped by their bond, as he grows to cherish everything that has to do with his lover, even going so far as to reject his mother, whom he’s always had a special bond with, over him. The only aspect of Achilles’ story that I didn’t like was his incredible arrogance towards the end of the Trojan War, even if it fits with the book’s narrative and the way his character was presented in the Iliad.
I really appreciated Miller’s attention to detail when it came to the Ancient Greek culture, especially the language since she takes time to explain why some words are more important than they appear in English, a distinction other authors overlook. This extra dimension really made me happy because she also insisted on the way Ancient Greek was structured and made that relevant to the story as a whole. All throughout the book Miller often uses language to get her point across, like the way Achilles says Patroclus’ name as opposed to how he’s used to hearing it from his father. In fact the way she portrays the culture very accurate, especially when she shows the world’s reaction to Patroclus and Achilles’ relationship when they are young vs. when they are adults; sure homosexuality was present and accepted in ancient Greece but only in very specific contexts, which is emphasised several times through different characters even after the war.
Miller’s writing is beautiful and her story flowed like water while I read it, her characters are complex with multiple aspects to each which made me like each and every one, regardless of their position in the story (Except Neoptolemus, he deserves nothing short of eternal torture), while her ending was enough to bring me to tears several times over (I unfortunately chose my mother’s birthday to finish it which lead to her being quite concerned over my distraught state). While I usually have pet peeves when it comes to foreign authors using Greek myths in their stories because they’re not always accurate (#ProblemsWithBeingGreek), Miller’s use of the world is spot on and, I’d even go so far as to say that she makes Achilles much more likeable in her tale than he is in the Iliad. It’s been a long time since I read a book that had this effect on me, so I cannot recommend it enough to any masochistic nerd with a love for Ancient Greek myths.