The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller
When I got the chance to read and review The Song of Achilles, I jumped at it. My biggest motivation was that it won the Orange Prize for Fiction for 2012, and I was impressed by last year’s winner, The Tiger’s Wife. The Song of Achilles is a retelling of The Iliad, the story of the Trojan War, and I was afraid that it would be long and dry, but that was not the case. My copy is 359 pages long, and I read it in 4 days, people. Here’s a plot summary from the back cover:
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.
The story is told from the perspective of Patroclus, whom I had never even heard of before I read this book. Granted, my entire education in Greek myths is from a childhood spent rereading D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths and an illustrated version of The Odyssey. And I feel like I should say this outright: when the book summary says that Achilles is torn between love and fear for his friend, it really means lover. Patroclus and Achilles are not just friends. So, fair warning. I was sort of anticipating this — I mean, it’s the ancient Greeks we’re talking about, here — and I think that Miller handled everything well in depicting their deep connection. She explains it more in an interview in the “P.S.” section at the end of my book:
Giving [Patroclus] a voice felt a little like standing up for him, like some kind of Lorax of ancient Greek mythology. I had been intensely frustrated by a number of articles I had read that kept sidestepping the love between him and Achilles, which to me felt so obviously at the story’s heart. [...] So partially I was propelled by a desire to set the record straight, as I saw it.
I was most pleasantly surprised by the treatment of time. How do you handle growing up through adolescence, a few years of education with a centaur, and more than 10 years fighting the Trojan War? I loved when Miller set up the scene, say, the lessons from Chiron, gave examples of the boys’ daily routine, and then said something like, “And then we were there for 2 years.” Great! Moving on! I felt like I had a full picture of that phase, but she didn’t dawdle or draw anything out. The description was lush and complete, but I never found myself thinking, “Okay, I get it about the palace.” Even the fighting scenes were impressively concise. It all worked together to keep the plot moving and the pages turning. It’s quite a trick to compel me to keep reading a book when I basically know the ending, but I could not put it down.
It occurred to me that maybe I liked it so much because my knowledge of Greek myths is purely recreational and not at all thorough. But I mentioned the book to Mary Frances via e-mail, and she told me that she read it last summer and loved it! She said it made her fall in love with the classics again. Look at that! Straight from an authentic Latin teacher! A scholar! So, yeah, this book can hang with the classicists.
One last point. You know the thing with the heel? Achilles’ heel? Yeah. Apparently, that is not a thing, at least not at the writing of The Iliad. If you read this book, don’t hold your breath waiting for a devastating heel incident. Miller says:
Achilles has many more myths about him than I included in the story, and deciding which to leave out was one of the most important structural decisions I made. Some of the ones I cut were actually quite well-known stories — like Achilles’ vulnerable heel. For some reason (and I know this sounds silly, given that there is a centaur in my novel), I have always found that story very unrealistic. After all, who dies from being shot in the heel?
Well, that makes sense.
I think The Song of Achilles is a very strong debut novel and definitely a book worth reading. If you’d like to give it a try, leave a comment here by next Friday, October 5, and I’ll randomly choose a person out of those commenters who will receive my copy in the mail. Then that person can pass it along to the next person, and we will have a lovely, book-passing-along party! Huzzah!
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Update: This giveaway is now closed. Congratulations to Erin!
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I received this book for free from HarperCollins.