Published by Bloomsbury Publishing on September 20th, 2011
Genres: Historical Fiction, Retelling, LGBTQ+
Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles. Despite their differences, Achilles befriends the shamed prince, 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's mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess. But when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, Achilles must go to war in distant Troy and fulfill his destiny. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus goes with him, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear.
“He is a weapon, a killer. Do not forget it. You can use a spear as a walking stick, but that will not change its nature.”
The Song of Achilles is a coming-of-age story told from Patroclus’ point of view, combining romance, heroism, and tragedy. This was five stars worth of pain and hands down one of the best retellings I’ve ever read in my life.
Let me commence by praising Madeline Miller’s beautiful and flawless writing. You can tell she had worked on this for a long, long time, for there wasn’t a single word out of place. Every word had its purpose, landed its mark. The Song of Achilles is one of the most quotable books I’ve read in my life. For this review, I could barely choose between these lines that comprise delicate wording, strong messages, and raw emotion.
Since this is a retelling of the well-known legend of Achilles and the Trojan war, the course of the plot came as no surprise. In spite of its predictability, Miller managed to craft a story that enthralls and hooks and delights. The slow pacing of this book served the character well, as their nuances, their development, and their dynamics moved into the spotlight – which is where they deserve to be! The complexity of the characters was perhaps one of the things that most surprised me about The Song of Achilles. I expected Miller to pull on my heartstrings and write epic battle scenes, but I’ll be honest when I say that her true skill lies within the creation of multi-layered characters you cannot help but love. Miller’s Achilles was a walking contradiction, and I loved it! Though strong, beautiful, and proud, he was also (too) trustful and vulnerable. His body shaped for warfare, his hands in love with the strings of the lyre. Now, while I loved Achilles’ character, I absolutely adored Patroclus. In stark contrast to Achilles, Patroclus is the selfless, humble voice of reason, and the perfect narrator for this story. His view of Achilles turned from blind worship to love in its truest forms. The romance was a beautifully written slow burn, examining many facets of love.
These two were surrounded by a historically and mythologically «loaded» cast, namely the goddess Thetis, sly Odysseus, and power-hungry Agamemnon. These secondary characters have more depth than many books’ main characters. Paris and Helen, though having caused the war in the first place, and even Hector were of surprisingly little interest in this book (and while Paris is depicted in a positive light in the Hollywood movie, he’s tainted by vanity through Patroclus’ eyes, which I… quite enjoyed?).
I noticed that Miller had omitted a few aspects of the myth which had been added after Homer had written the Illiad, and she does state that Homer’s work was the base of her story, so this makes perfect sense. I feel her choice added a certain novelty to the legend and a vulnerability to Achilles’ character. As it is with retellings, we often expect to know the ending, and then end up being smacked in the face by an unexpected plot twist. The ending was excruciating but for reasons other than I expected. Death is, of course, a part of this story, but Miller shaped a possible fate more cruel than death itself, and I did not expect to suffer as much as I did.
He smiled, and his face was like the sun.
In short, words can never do this book justice. Though blood and violence are present, The Song of Achilles is a quiet book. It’s about love just as much as it is about pride, vanity, purity, mortality, and redemption. This book will make you change your mind about who the greatest of the Greeks was. This book will make you weep and wail and gush and flail. Bring a set of strong nerves and tissues to this party.