The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Published by Ecco on August 28, 2012 (originally published September 20, 2011)
Genre(s): fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, romance
Format & Length: paperback, 378
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Achilles, “the best of all the Greeks,” son of the cruel sea goddess Thetis and the legendary king Peleus, is strong, swift, and beautiful irresistible to all who meet him. Patroclus is an awkward young prince, exiled from his homeland after an act of shocking violence. Brought together by chance, they forge an inseparable bond, despite risking the gods’ wrath.
They are trained by the centaur Chiron in the arts of war and medicine, but when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, all the heroes 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, and torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows. Little do they know that the cruel Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice.
Although The Song of Achilles has been on my radar for years, it wasn’t until Madeline Miller came out with Circe that I started to feel the need to read her books. And during a trip to the bookstore, I found this on the shelves and decided it was time to give it a shot.
“There was violence in that room, with so many princes and heroes and kings competing for a single prize, but we knew how to ape civilization.”
Based on part of Homer’s The Iliad, this is the story of demi-god Achilles and his lesser known companion, Patroclus. To be honest, I didn’t know much about the source material going in. I remember having read some Greek mythology in school but recall next to nothing and haven’t consumed much popular culture relating to it, either. So I was pleased to find how accessible Miller’s version was. Not only was this easy to read and follow, keeping the many characters clear along the way, it also brought an age old story to life in a way that I could envision it completely. And I appreciated that I didn’t need to have previous knowledge to fully understand everything.
In a Q&A with the author at the end of the book, Miller explains her reason for writing this story as a way of delving into the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, which felt so obviously to her to be the heart of The Iliad. And that speaks volumes to the book she created. This is a very character driven story that explores not only the main characters and their relationship, but also develops many of its side characters to examine the culture from which the original story came. While the events that occur take place in the lead up to and during the Trojan War, the action of the plot is more of a background that allows the characters to shine. I did find the pacing to be somewhat inconsistent, with some sections feeling much slower than others. However, many of the slower parts were spent delving deeper with and creating intimacy with the characters, which was necessary for the poignant reading experience this wound up being.
Overall, The Song of Achilles was a powerful book with characters and messages that will stay with me for some time. I’m glad to have read this and am even more eager to read Circe now. Recommended.