My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Song of Achilles is a masterful, lyrical debut about how the wants of the heart conflict with the wants of the world. Told through the eyes of the man who knew him best, Miller brings a breath of fresh air to the legendary Achilles.
I picked up this book based on a reddit user’s suggestion. One of the books I most enjoyed recently was Call Me by Your Name, and someone suggested this book as an equivalent to CMBYN in terms of style. Needless to say, I was interested in the style and the content. Who doesn’t love a good ancient Greek story, especially one about the most badass warrior of all time, Achilles? So I downloaded the audiobook, narrated by the exceedingly-talented Frazer Douglas.
The Song of Achilles is the story of Achilles, the half-god, half-man warrior of myth, told from the perspective of his lover Patroclus. If you’ve seen the movie Troy or read Homer’s The Iliad, you know how this story ends. But if not I won’t spoil it here.
Patroclus is born the child of a disapproving father and a simple mother. Patroclus is not strong, not fast, not especially skilled at anything the Greeks held important. Still just a boy, Patroclus accidentally kills another boy playing childish games. This disgraces his father, who sends him to the kingdom of Phthia as an exile.
In Phthia, Patroclus is absorbed into the group of noble sons who practice the sword and spear. Though Patroclus is not adept at either, he is befriended by the most talented of all the boys, Achilles. The two quickly establish a fast friendship as they go about their training. As the boys grow up, Achilles is sent to Mount Pelion to train under the wise centaur Chiron. Patroclus, unable to live apart from Achilles, goes with him. On Mount Pelion, their relationship blossoms to more than just friendship.
“I found myself grinning until my cheeks hurt, my scalp prickling till I thought it might lift off my head. My tongue ran away from me, giddy with freedom. This, and this, and this, I said to him. I did not have to fear that I spoke too much. I did not have to worry that I was too slender, or too slow. This and this and this! I taught him how to skip stones, and he taught me how to carve wood. I could feel every nerve in my body, every brush of air against my skin.”
Soon, words of war come. There is a war brewing between Greece and Troy, as the Trojan prince Paris has allegedly stolen Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world and the wife of Menelaus. Achilles is called upon by his mother, the immortal Thetis, to fight for glory. Patroclus urges him to abstain.
Achilles must choose between a long life of little notoriety with Patroclus, or going out in a short blaze of everlasting glory as the man who conquered Troy.
“Name one hero who was happy,” Achilles said.
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 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.”
“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.”
Before The Song of Achilles, I had never read any Madeline Miller. She is a damn good author if I’ve ever seen one. And The Song of Achilles is her DEBUT? As you might know, Madeline Miller’s second novel just won the 2018 Goodreads Choice award for Best Fantasy Novel. Yeah. Impressive. Madeline Miller wrote a beautiful book and it was a joy to read. If you like Greek myth it’s an extra plus when reading this book, but not necessary.
The Song of Achilles is half-condemnation, half-exultation. Through Patroclus’s eyes, the reader sees Achilles as more than just a warrior. He is gentle, kindhearted, and honest. The Song of Achilles is about nature versus nurture. Achilles feels in his heart that being with Patroclus is right, that peace is right, but the world and his obligations pull and tug at the gentle peace the two men enjoy, unravelling it at the hem. Achilles is the greatest warrior he has ever known, but is his glory more important than the people he loves?
“He said what he meant; he was puzzled if you did not. Some people might have mistaken this for simplicity. But is it not a sort of genius to cut always to the heart?”
Review by Griffin