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A Reader of Fictions: Review: The Song of Achilles

A Reader of Fictions

Book Reviews for Just About Every Kind of Book

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Review: The Song of Achilles

The Song of Achilles

Author: Madeline Miller
Pages: 369
Publisher: Ecco
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.

Rating: 4.5/5

Favorite Quote:
"'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.'"

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Blogger Alessandra said...

Yes! Love this review! All signs so far tell me that I'm going to love this book. So maybe I should try to lower my expectations a bit, *just in case*.

On a side note, I think that attempting to read (or listen to) the *whole* Iliad (or Odyssey), especially in a short amount of time, is a very good way to hate it. It's extremely hard to enjoy the Homeric poems that way, because they were not composed to be experienced like that. I'm not trying to tell you that "you did it wrong"; it's more like, "you didn't like it that way? I'm surprised anyone would". And that's not Homer's fault. I suppose you got the whole "Homer probably didn't exist, and even if he did, he probably wasn't the author of both the Iliad and the Odyssey" speech at some point?

I can't remember much of the film Troy, but I didn't really like it much.

September 2, 2012 at 5:07 AM  
Blogger April (BooksandWine) said...

The Song of Achilles sounds great. I mean, I like that you get a pretty indepth look at Odysseus and Patroclus and Achilles.

Also? I am always a fan of shit-stirrers, being one myself in real life.

We never had to read The Iliad in high school, but we did read The Odyssey which I liked because we got to watch the movie too. And also I remember the Wishbone adaptation and I have a soft spot for books with Wishbone adaptations.

September 2, 2012 at 9:55 AM  
Blogger Adriana @ BooksOnHerMind said...

I did like Homer (:
It's Greek Mythology! How can you not like it?
I'm surprised that the author went that way with the book.
Good thing nothing is graphic and I love how their love is sweet. Aww!! XD
I already had this as my tbr list but never read the summary. This book is going to be awesome. Oh, how I love Greek Mythology... *sigh*

September 2, 2012 at 10:49 AM  
Blogger Christina said...

That's ALWAYS a good idea. Whenever people told me I was too cynical, I would respond that it just left more space to be pleasantly surprised.

Hmmm, I don't remember that speech, but I may have. I blame the education system for me 'doing it wrong.' Also, I did listen to the audiobook in bits and pieces and I was still bored. I don't think that style is for me. There will never be a format or a reading speed at which I will care about who commanded every boat. I know some people like that stuff, though.

The film was SO BAD.

September 4, 2012 at 9:36 AM  
Blogger Christina said...

Yes! I loved that they got to be real people in this, and most of the adaptations I've read/seen focus more on Helen and Paris, because they're the prettiest.

Me too.


September 4, 2012 at 9:36 AM  
Blogger Christina said...

I freaking love Greek mythology, but his style does not mesh with my tastes.

Yup, they are the cutest.

Woo! I hope you love it. This one's definitely wonderful.

September 4, 2012 at 9:37 AM  
Blogger Steena said...

I didn't know retellings of Homer was a thing! I must read all of these NOW! Do you know if someone has taken on the Aeneid? Because that one was definitely my fav and I've always wanted to write the tale from Dido's perspective.

September 4, 2012 at 12:01 PM  
Blogger Steena said...

I LOVED the Wishbone Odyssey episode and, to this day, remember during the fight scene, when he's pulling the rug out from under one of the suitors feet, he says "Have a nice TRIP, see you next FALL." Haha, epic pun, Wishbone.

September 4, 2012 at 12:04 PM  
Blogger Christina said...

Oh man, I don't remember that one at all! Sad. I have very strong memories of the Don Quixote episode though. So wonderful.

September 4, 2012 at 12:20 PM  
Blogger Christina said...

That I know of? No.

Google says:
Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin
In Search of a Homeland - Penelope Lively
Black Ships - Jo Graham

No idea if any of those are from Dido's perspective, or if they're good, though I suspect they may be.

September 4, 2012 at 12:23 PM  
Blogger Katie said...

You didn't like The Iliad?! *cries for Homer's sake* Seriously though it's my fav book of all time. (I'm crazy, I know lol) Interesting that this author took the Achilles-Patroclus relationship in a LGBT way. That's a hotly contested issue with scholars basically split down the middle. I've always loved Patroclus, but I guess I don't see how Achilles could have kept him as a lover if he also had briseis...unless he's bi. Historically speaking though Greek homosexuality usually involved an older man and a very young one, so the gay theory doesn't fly with me. But there certainly are a lot of rather romantic-ish declarations from Achilles, so it's tough.

...sorry, I sorta love this debate. Lol

September 4, 2012 at 1:05 PM  
Blogger Christina said...

I didn't. Shameful, I know. Maybe some day. I used to not like LOTR and I love it now, so maybe I'll grow into Homer one day.

Well, I don't think Achilles or Patroclus is a hundred percent gay, but they're just really into one another. As for the whole Briseis thing, you'll need to read it to find out how Miller handled that.

I don't have any issue with them being gay. I don't know much about the history of homosexuality, but I don't see why that would prevent two younger people from getting together. Hmmm. I wonder if there are books on that...

No problem. I feel like I need to research some for the debate. Ultimately, though, it's fiction about fiction, so there's a lot of latitude I think.

September 4, 2012 at 1:10 PM  
Blogger Alessandra said...

I was referring to the so-called Homeric question. I can't really remember it in details, but I think this wikipedia page is pretty accurate:
Homeric Question

I'm sorry, I always manage to sound like a know-it-all when commenting on your blog. And no, I wouldn't be interested in reading about the commander of each Greek ship, either. I think these parts should be always skipped, unless you're reading the Iliad with a specific research interest in mind.

September 5, 2012 at 4:15 PM  
Blogger Christina said...

That's totally cool. I have no issue learning new things from my commenters. As long as the comment doesn't start with 'you bloody idiot,' we're all good!

You're right. Skipping those sections would be wise, but I don't like doing that, because then I feel like I'm lying if I claim to have read the whole book. :/

September 5, 2012 at 4:17 PM  

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