Author: Madeline Miller
Source: Finished paperback for review
Description from Goodreads:
Greece in the age of Heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia. Here he is nobody, just another unwanted boy living in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles.
Achilles, 'best of all the Greeks', is everything Patroclus is not — strong, beautiful, the child of a goddess — and by all rights their paths should never cross. Yet one day, Achilles takes the shamed prince under his wing and soon their tentative companionship gives way to a steadfast friendship. As they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something far deeper — despite the displeasure of Achilles's mother Thetis, a cruel and deathly pale sea goddess with a hatred of mortals.
Fate is never far from the heels of Achilles. When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece are called upon to lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause, Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows Achilles into war, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they have learned, everything they hold dear. And that, before he is ready, he will be forced to surrender his friend to the hands of Fate.
Profoundly moving and breathtakingly original, this rendering of the epic Trojan War is a dazzling feat of the imagination, a devastating love story, and an almighty battle between gods and kings, peace and glory, immortal fame and the human heart.
First Sentence: "My father was a king and the son of kings"
Like me, many of you likely had to read Homer in high school or in college. If you read Homer, you may have felt as I did: that his books were written to torture students. Seriously, I tried to reread (via audiobook) The Iliad recently, and I just could not do it, even though the narrator was awesome. I mean, Homer LOVES detail to a degree that would make even Tolkien weep with frustration and boredom. For example, in The Iliad, he spends a chapter listing EVERY SINGLE DAMN ONE of those 1000+ ships sent for Helen and which ruler goes with it. I DON'T CARE ABOUT THIS, HOMER!
Ranting complete. Whether you did or not, you probably know the story (they did make that awful movie Troy), and that the story itself is marvelous. Gods, betrayal, war, cleverness, heroes, sacrifice, and hubris make for a story completely epic in scope and so entirely Greek. The Song of Achilles tells Homer's story, but does so much better in my opinion. This is what I wanted The Iliad to be.
There have been so many different Homer adaptations, my favorites of which thus far have been Adele Geras' Troy, which focuses on Helen and Paris, and Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad, which follows Penelope as she waits for Odysseus to return home. Like most adaptations now, Miller does not seek just to tell the story as it was in friendlier language with the boring bits cut out. She adds her own spin to the tale, taking the good bones of the story and fleshing out something deeper and more touching.
The Song of Achilles first came to my attention on a list of last year's best LGBT fiction. Miller has chosen to tell the story of The Iliad through the lens of Patroclus, who you may remember as Bradchilles' "cousin" in the film Troy. As we all knew, they are totally NOT cousins. Miller added onto The Iliad, crafting a back story for Patroclus and Achilles, setting them up as lovers doomed to have too little time together.
Patroclus, a prince in his own right, has no skill at fighting, but accidentally manages to kill a boy and is exiled for his crime. His father sends him to live with a number of other exiled princes in Phthia, King Peleus being sympathetic to the plight of these boys. At first, Patroclus loathes Peleus' son Achilles, who is a foil to Patroclus. Where Achilles is bright, beautiful, powerful, respected, Patroclus is dark, ugly, weak and spurned.
Of course, as one expects, his hatred eventually changes into friendship and then into...other feelings. While Achilles and Patroclus do have a sexual relationship, the descriptions are not especially graphic. Their relationship is just SO sweet, and, obviously, sad, as this whole book is an exercise in dramatic irony. What got me right in the feels was how committed the two were to one another. Achilles could have had anyone he wanted, but he never had any desire for anyone but Patroclus, who, according to all reports, has little to recommend him. Patroclus, for his part, stands by Achilles unwaveringly and does his best to try to keep the boy he loves from turning into someone else in the pursuit of glory.
Another wonderful aspect of this novel for me was that I finally understood Odysseus. I know from hours of exhaustive English class analysis how I'm supposed to perceive Achilles (clever, funny, wise, most likable of all of the Greeks), but I never really did see him as anything especially special. I loved Odysseus in here. He's so funny (especially when chatting with Diomedes), and he's such a shit-stirrer. He totally knows everyone's business and likes to mess with them, both for business and for fun.
The ending, which I won't discuss in detail, as some of you might have been living under a rock and not know how it goes, is a bit odd. Miller does something interesting there at the end that I was not expecting at all. My first reaction was an eye roll and disappointment, but she did sell me on it by the last page. It's a bit on the over-sweet side, but I loved the thought behind it.
Miller's writing has a simple sort of beauty to it, a lovely cadence. Reading her words was a sheer pleasure. I declare this a must read for everyone who loved the story of The Iliad but was bored to tears, or just anyone who wants a beautifully-written, moving tale.
"'I would still be with you. But I could sleep outside, so it would not be so obvious. I do not need to attend your councils. I—'
'No. The Phthians will not care. And the others can talk all they like. I will still be Aristos Achaion.' Best of the Greeks.
'Your honor could be darkened by it."
'Then it is darkened.' His jaw shot forward, stubborn. 'They are fools if they let my glory rise or fall on this.'"