Review: The Song of Achilles

The Song of Achilles The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My father was a king and the son of kings. He was a short man, as most of us were, and built like a bull, all shoulders. He married my mother when she was fourteen and sworn by the priestess to be fruitful. It was a good match: she was an only child, and her father’s fortune would go to her husband.

He did not find out until the wedding that she was simple. Her father had been scrupulous about keeping her veiled until the ceremony, and my father had humored him. If she was ugly, there were always slave girls and serving boys. When at last they pulled off the veil, they say my mother smiled. That is how they knew she was quite stupid. Brides did not smile.

The book is a retelling of the life of Achilles through the eyes of Patroclus. Madeline Miller portrays the two as lovers, an interpretation that does not appear in The Iliad but goes back to ancient times, appearing in a lost play by Aeschylus, for example.

Plot:
The first half focuses on the relationship between the two of them and takes place before the war, which begins about halfway through the book.

Characters:
Patroclus: Patroclus is a bit of a blank slate as a character, but as far as I can tell that’s consistent with the source material. And he does prove himself eventually, right around the point where Achilles becomes almost insufferable. His relationship with Achilles was a bit too perfect, I thought. A retelling of The Iliad needs to have a bit more psychological realism, even in a mythical setting.

Achilles: Miller presents Achilles as a bit more compassionate character than I would have expected based on the Iliad. He’s still petty and selfish, but I guess his ruthless is toned down a bit.
I think in the original story of Achilles’s time in Scyros, he raped Deidamia?

Achilles gets shot in the heart just like a normal soldier. Miller explains in the glossary that the tale of Achilles’s fatally wounded heel is a later addition introduced into the myths after Homer. (The Iliad itself ends before the death of Achilles, with the funeral of Hector.)

Thetis: The mother of Achilles. She comes across as a worse person than in the original, almost a villain. I don’t really mind the alternate character interpretation, but it definitely is one.

Style: I liked some of the writing, but there was definitely some purple prose. Fortunately the whole book was not like that, but it needed a bit more emotional restraint at times. There were also some weird shifts into present tense; I am not sure if those served any purpose.

The best scene in the book is probably this one:
“Name one hero who was happy.”
I considered. Heracles went mad and killed his family; Theseus lost his bride and father; Jason’s children and new wife were murdered by his old; Bellerophon killed the Chimera but was crippled by the fall from Pegasus’ back.
“You can’t.” He was sitting up now, leaning forward.
“I can’t.”
“I know. They never let you be famous AND happy.” He lifted an eyebrow. “I’ll tell you a secret.”
“Tell me.” I loved it when he was like this.
“I’m going to be the first.” He took my palm and held it to his. “Swear it.”
“Why me?”
“Because you’re the reason. Swear it.”
“I swear it,” I said, lost in the high color of his cheeks, the flame in his eyes.
“I swear it,” he echoed.
We sat like that a moment, hands touching. He grinned.
“I feel like I could eat the world raw.”

I didn’t quite love this, but it had some great moments. I am definitely interested in reading Miller’s second novel, Circe, which is about the enchantress Circe from The Odyssey. The other retelling of the Trojan War I’ve read is the Age of Bronze series by Eric Shanower, starting with Age of Bronze Volume 1: A Thousand Ships. There are 4 volumes so far. I like it better, but that’s partly because it has a wider scope, covering all the major characters and some of the minor ones.

The Trojan War is also the subject of one of the few actually plausible fanfiction crossovers I’ve read. (To anyone out there who doesn’t know this: a crossover combines two different fictional universes — here it’s the Greek myths and The Silmarillion. I do not usually talk about fanfic outside of fanfic spaces but I felt like this deserved a shout-out:
War Dust, by Nol

View all my reviews

Published by Beth @ Beth's Bookish Thoughts

This blog is for my thoughts on reading. A couple of my friends on GoodReads have blogs, so eventually I decided to start one myself. I hope to get involved in the book blogging community and become a better reader and writer! I am not accepting copies of new books for review, but I would be interested in new editions or new translations of classic authors. Find me on Upwork (as an editor) in the profile link. From September 2018 to October 2020 I blogged at Blogger.

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