THE SONG OF ACHILLES
By Madeline Miller
For a while now, Madeline Miller’s the Song of Achilles has been passionately talked about by book lovers everywhere: I see folk raving about this book on Twitter, on TikTok, on Facebook, Instagram, in person, everywhere. Before I read this, I couldn’t watch/read a list of favourite books without encountering this mythological romance. I’m not usually a fan of mythological books but this was getting praise absolutely launched at it from every angle, so eventually I figured I’d have to give into the hype. The day I failed my driving test (for the second time), I saw a copy of Achilles in Silverburn and bought a copy to dry my tears with.
The Song of Achilles was published by debut author Madeline Miller in 2011, which I just found out! The hype around this has been so recent I assumed it was a newer fic. It precedes Miller’s second mythological retelling, Circe, which came out in 2018. Miller is currently working on a book about Persephone – again, I’m not too hot on mythology, but I’ve always been really interested in Persephone’s story, so it might be a release I end up picking up.
Miller’s debut is told through the perspective of Patroclus, an exiled prince who quickly becomes infatuated with Achilles after arriving in his kingdom, Phthia. Achilles is a half god – his father is an esteemed king, his mother is the haughty and belligerent Thetis (Thetis has her reasons to be pissed off 100% of the time, more power to her). He is naturally gifted at all things – running, fighting, music, – and is widely seen to be very handsome. He chooses Patroclus as his companion, and the boys become friends, and eventually lovers. Their relationship comes to be before the realization of the Trojan war, which Patroclus and Achilles are dragged into.
Achilles packs a whole life and then some into its 416 pages. This is something I’d usually consider a little long for my taste, but I never felt like Miller was doddling or wasting time. We don’t spend long with little Patroclus, only seeing the key scenes of his childhood; some formative plot points. More time is spent with him as a teen as he gets to know Achilles, and then summers blink away as he and Achilles grow older. Much of the latter chapters take place during the Trojan war – the characters express frustration at how repetitive their days are as they wait for movement, and again, the years melt away like wax wings flying too close to the sun. But yet, despite being by all accounts plain, not especially characteristic, and very dull beside his companion, Patroclus ends up being a strong narrator in guiding us through these chapters. He is a keen observer or the people around him; he is kind and this kindness gains us new voices in his new friends; he is thoughtful, and his point of view is varied and interesting.
Was I always 100% behind Patroclus’ and Achilles’ relationship? From a technical perspective, no. The pair are quite clearly soul mates, fated for each other and all that, which is great and all, but sometimes I find that beats are skipped in ways I just can’t quite reconcile with.
Early on we witness Patroclus’ pining for Achilles, which is all really great actually because Patroclus is a hormonal teenager and we see this pining through his lens; sometimes he’s extremely frustrated with Achilles and doesn’t know why. But we get absolutely no insight into Achilles’ thought process early on. One day, for reasons that aren’t extremely clear, Patroclus rescues a petulant Patroclus from the inevitable trouble he’d get into from shirking his classes. You could make the argument that Achilles’ reasons are laced in reason, but as stated, that doesn’t just do it for me.
That said, the relationship we see between Achilles and Patrcolus can be really fun! They’re very lively and cute together, and share intimate and sweet moments. As they grow older and are hardened by life at war, they can lose patience with each other and this ends up being an interesting build on everything we’ve seen so far.
This all being said, just to get this out the way: this book was sold to me on the premise of being horiner than it was. It’s not that horny. Patroclus talks about Achilles’ feet more than I’m comfortable with.
How many times have I said in this review “x isn’t for me”? I reiterate for the last time that this book isn’t something I’d usually go for. I do normally withstand mass hype, too, but my annoying hipster sensibilities have always been disproven: I really liked this book! It was really well paced, was always building on the story effectively, and it was a really fun read for someone who has a very limited interest in mythological stories.
The Song of Achilles explores a love that is unconditional but changing; the central relationship moulds around Patroclus and Achilles as they grow older, as they experience the same world in different ways, as they start to form opinions that sometimes lead them to clash. Despite tension their relationship is always tender and heart wrenching. I’ve seen a lot of readers reach for tissues while reading this – I wasn’t one of them, sure, but this is no less an emotional and heartfelt read.
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