The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Historical Fantasy Retelling
Year published: 2011
Synopsis: Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles. By all rights their paths should never cross, but Achilles takes the shamed prince as his friend, and as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine their bond blossoms into something deeper – despite the displeasure of Achilles’ mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess. But then word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus journeys with Achilles to Troy, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear.
Trigger warning: violence.
Spoilers: If you know nothing about The Iliad, and the story of the Trojan War, there will be minor spoilers ahead. I’m writing under the assumption that you know roughly what happened.
Why I was interested: It’s a retelling of The Iliad. And it’s by Madeline Miller.
General comments: The Song of Achilles is, at its heart, a character exploration, which Madeline Miller excels in writing. The story follows Patroclus from childhood onward, and the focus is the relationship he develops with Achilles. There was a lot to like, but I did almost quit on it twice. And if I’m completely honest, I would never have picked up Circe if I had read this first. I’m not sure I even understand my feelings about this book, so let’s just move on to the reviewing part of the review.
What I liked:
Patroclus: The best part of this book was Patroclus. He was a pacifist in a world that valorised violence. Achilles was portrayed as a sort of foil – the ultimate representation of that patriarchal warrior culture which was so at odds with Patroclus’ values. Patroclus was a healer, not a warrior.
Writing: Madeline Miller’s writing is lovely and readable. And I really enjoyed the way the narration was handled at the end. I won’t say any more because that ventures further into the realm of spoilers than I’m willing to go.
What I disliked:
Graphic scenes: There were some scenes which made me really uncomfortable, such as the battles, and the sacrifice of Iphigenia. It’s not that I wasn’t expecting them, or that I am particularly delicate. I read Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls which was about fifty billion times more graphic. I think it had more to do with the overall tone of the story being so at odds with these scenes that they really punched me in the gut. Maybe that was the point. But I still didn’t like it.
Apologist retelling: The problem here is not that it is trying to redeem Achilles, it’s that it completely and utterly failed to convince me. Achilles’ only redemption was Patroclus. His conscience was Patroclus. If Patroclus was not there to reign him in, Achilles was just as bad as the rest of the men.
I think the problems I had with this book were a result of my comparisons to Madeline Miller’s Circe, which I loved. There is less magic in The Song of Achilles. The narrator is male. And I just don’t think this book was as successful as Circe in making a ‘side character’ of one of the most well-known Greek myths the hero of the story. In the end, I still felt that it was all about Achilles.